Washington fishermen angry about state's new gillnet rules


SKAMOKAWA -- When Marty Kuller was growing up in Seward, Alaska, commercial fishermen walked tall, and little boys like Kuller looked up to them.

"Growing up as a young man, the commercial fishermen were the pillars of the community. As a young man, that was my dream. You know how something like that can take hold in you," Kuller, 50, said last week.

But these days, gillnetting no longer fills his heart with pride and excitement.

Kuller still gillnets on the Columbia River and purse-seines in Alaska, and he's branched out into fish-buying, working with fellow Skamokawa gillnetter Kent Martin and others to deliver salmon to high-end specialty markets around the region.

But as the political controversy about gillnetting and the competition with sports fishermen have built to a climax, Kuller and other gillnetters on the Lower Columbia are losing faith that a new Columbia River fisheries plan will leave a place for them and their way of life.

In fact, Kuller has made the drastic decision to leave Wahkiakum County. Within the next few years, he will move himself, his wife Vicki Sue and daughter Whitney to a recently purchased property near Lake Havasu, Ariz., thousands of miles from the landscape and profession that have defined his life for the past 25 years.

Wednesday morning, he and Martin sat in Kuller's Skamokowa nethouse, surrounded by decades' worth of accumulated equipment, talking about what it feels like to be entangled in the current controversy over which nets -- and which fishermen -- will be allowed to catch salmon on the lower Columbia.

On Saturday, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission adopted a plan proposed by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber to phase out gillnet use on the main stem of the river and reallocate commercial gillnet use to off-channel hatchery sites.

The rules, which the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission approved on Dec. 7, also will force commercial fishermen to adopt alternative fishing gear, such as seine nets, which are currently illegal in Oregon. The measures are meant to reduce "bycatch" of endangered salmon stocks that mix with hatchery fish.

The plan also reallocates more fish to recreational fishermen, with some salmon species eventually being allocated at 80 percent for recreational and 20 percent for commercial.

Gillnetters have voiced impassioned objections to the plan and sued the Oregon Fish & Wildlife Commission, saying the new rules make it impossible for them to ply their trade in Oregon and Washington.

"We're getting a raw deal. We're getting forced out of it. ... I've just had enough of it. I just can't take it anymore. I've come to the conclusion that I'm not even gonna live here anymore," Kuller said.

Kuller and Martin say that when fishermen leave the region, they take more than money with them. Commercial fishing is part of the region's cultural heritage, and even though overfishing decades ago contributed to declining runs, gillnetters also have been strong advocates for fish, insisting decades ago, for example, that Columbia River dams be equipped with fish ladders.

"If you lose the gillnetting, you're gonna lose a way of life that's been here longer than statehood," Kuller said. "The fish are probably gonna be the big loser in all of this because the commercial fishermen have been friends of the fish since day one."

The social fabric of coastal communities also suffers, as traditional industries are eliminated, Martin said. When young people must migrate to the cities to find employment, community service groups and emergency services units that rely on volunteer labor are hit especially hard.

And research by his wife, historian and author Irene Martin, has shown that in Clatsop, Pacific, Grays Harbor and Wahkiakum counties, social problems like domestic violence, suicide and alcoholism are "through the roof, because you've lost so much of what your identity and your heritage is," Martin said.

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