Money local commercial salmon fishermen will soon receive as compensation after reform policies pushed them off the Columbia River is “not nothing.” But it’s not quite something, either.
“It means a little bit of a paycheck,” said David Quashnick, a gillnetter who has been fishing since he was a teenager and now has two sons who run their own boats. “It’s not enough. I would rather be fishing and not having to worry about free money.”
Clatsop County informed 129 commercial gillnetters in September that they were eligible for a cut of the $500,000 set aside in the state’s Columbia River Transition Fund to compensate them for direct economic losses and reimburse them for gear.
This month, county officials said 124 fishermen had responded and applied for around $460,000 worth of the pot as of last week.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife will give final approval for how the county intends to distribute the funds, but Theresa Dursse, executive assistant and clerk for the Clatsop County Board of Commissioners, said the county hopes to start cutting checks to fishermen soon. Fishermen who applied for compensation for economic losses will receive checks ranging from a mere $56 to the maximum $8,750. Fishermen who applied for reimbursement for gear will receive up to $2,750.
Gillnets, which hang vertically in the water and catch fish by the gills, were phased off the Columbia River main stem after former Gov. John Kitzhaber introduced a harvest reform plan in 2012. The plan, commonly referred to as the Kitzhaber Plan or Columbia River Reform, was pitched as a way to protect wild salmon and steelhead runs by replacing gillnet gear with more selective types of equipment.
The remaining gillnet fishermen were shifted to off-river, or “select areas,” like Youngs Bay.
Recreational and salmon conservation groups said the changes would protect salmon. The commercial fishermen said it would destroy their way of life. They also argued that gillnet gear was better at targeting the right salmon than the alternatives proposed by the Oregon and Washington state fishery managers.
The Columbia River Transition Fund, created by the Legislature in 2013, was supposed to help fishermen adjust to the new regulations, with $500,000 set aside every two years to provide financial assistance to gillnetters through 2019.
The fund was never tapped, an EO Media Group reporter in Salem discovered last year, and some of the money instead automatically reverted to the state’s general fund due to an accounting error at the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
In the past two years, a number of Oregon’s Fish and Wildlife commissioners say they now agree with the commercial fishermen. Many fishermen are looking ahead to meetings across the river and between Oregon and Washington’s fish and wildlife commissions to discuss the future of commercial gillnetting on the river.
The Columbia River gillnet fishery used to be a natural entry point into the commercial fishing industry for many local, aspiring fishermen. Some of them remain involved despite a complex regulatory landscape and diminishing fishing opportunities.
Jim Wells, president of the Astoria-based commercial fishing advocacy group Salmon For All, was on the county committee that determined how the state money would be disbursed. On the list of people who applied for money, he saw some who had dropped out of the fishery or who had sold their boats and permits. Most are still actively involved, even as the economics become harder to balance out.
Commercial fishing has always been a risky undertaking, but gillnetting used to be a somewhat reliable livelihood. It had the added benefit of being close to home, on the Columbia River rather than far out at sea.
Fishermen often jump around between fisheries — switching to tuna or crab as the year moves along — to make ends meet, but even that seems to be getting trickier.
Crab boats did not get on the water for the last season until the end of January. The fishery traditionally opens in December. Some gillnetters who crab during the winter struggled to make ends meet while they waited for the fishery to open.
“A lot of young guys were really hurting for money in that gap,” Wells said.
For older, more established fishermen, the money finally coming from the state’s compensation fund doesn’t add up to much. But it is significant for those younger fishermen who remain involved in the gillnet fishery, Wells said.
Otis Hunsinger, 37, who lives in Knappa with his wife and children and comes from a long line of commercial fishermen, is one of the younger fishermen Wells has in mind. Hunsinger is happy to have the compensation — it’s a paycheck after a long, lean season.
“I appreciate the money and I will use it,” he said. “But it doesn’t make me,” he paused, and continued, “I would much rather have the fishing time than the money. I’m not looking for a handout. I want to fish and provide for my family.”
The money will help him pay a month’s worth of bills. He would trade 10 times that amount of money just “to go back to fishing the way it used to be.”