"Power up!" yells Capt. James Ives as a pulley motor begins hauling a heavy fishing net onto the Dream Catcher's deck, here on the Columbia River in northeastern Washington. Three crewmembers from the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation fold the net, piling its floats on one side of the boat and pleating its lead-weighted hem on the other side. The purse seine slowly closes, while Colville Tribes harvest biologist Mike Rayton repeatedly thrusts a long plunger into the water, making "orca" bubbles to keep the frightened fish from fleeing the narrowing net.
The "moneybag" isn't hoisted aboard as it would be in a commercial fishing operation. Instead, the fishermen scoop out the fish and sort them. Hatchery-born salmon, identified by their clipped adipose fins, are clubbed and placed in a cooler. On most days, wild chinook salmon are returned to the river. But today, the men yell "Boot!" and slide one into a galosh-like black rubber sheath, handing it off to specialists from the Chelan County Public Utility District, who quickly transfer it to a tank on their own boat. Later, it will go to a hatchery to be used as natural-origin broodstock.
Today's catch is thin. "There's one," says Ives, as a 15-pound hatchery chinook lands on deck. "We didn't get skunked." In almost five hours on this August morning, they've caught only seven adult chinook, two jacks (chinook that return from the ocean before reaching full size), and two sockeye. Usually, this area — at the mouth of the Okanogan River — is a good place to find salmon in summer.
When the Okanogan's temperature climbs above 70 degrees Fahrenheit, the fish hesitate to swim upstream toward their spawning grounds, so they temporarily congregate in the cooler Columbia. Last year, Dream Catcher's seven-man crew caught about 19,500 fish, tossing back just over 1,200 wild fish. But 2011 is cooler, so the fish don't linger.
Salmon was once a staple of the 12 Indian tribes now confederated under the Colville banner, but Washington's fish have been decimated by overfishing, dams, and loss of habitat: Thirteen Columbia River stocks are federally listed as either threatened or endangered. The Colville Tribes hope that selective harvesting will allow them to catch their full allocation of salmon for ceremonial and subsistence use without jeopardizing wild runs' recovery. By harvesting only hatchery-born fish, program managers also hope to prevent summer and fall chinook runs in the upper Columbia River from joining spring chinook and steelhead as protected species.
Now in its third year, the Colville project is funded mainly by the Bonneville Power Administration — a quasi-federal agency responsible for selling power from the region's federal hydroelectric dams while also mitigating their impacts. In addition to using purse seines, the tribes are experimenting with beach seines, tangle nets, weirs, and even traditional dip-net fishing from scaffolds, giving tribal members numerous options for selectively catching fish in a variety of places and conditions.
"We need to have a toolbox full of methods," says Joe Peone, the tribes' fish and wildlife director.
Farther downriver, Washington's Department of Fish and Wildlife has also been experimenting with selective harvesting using purse seines, to help limit fishing's impacts on endangered and threatened salmon runs without closing fisheries and thereby angering tribal, commercial, and sport fishermen. The agency is especially interested in whether commercial fisherman on the lower Columbia could employ the technique.
Most currently use gillnets there, which snag fish by the gills — killing as many as 40 percent of them before they can be released. Along with tangle nets, which catch fish by the teeth, gillnets are the only commercial gear legally allowed on the Columbia. In theory, purse seining would protect more wild salmon while still allowing fishermen to harvest plenty of hatchery-origin fish, but in practice it's unclear whether the methods being tested now are applicable on a larger scale.
Past selective-harvest approaches, aimed primarily at sport fishermen, have scarcely touched the salmon declines. In the Columbia Basin, fisheries managers began clipping the fins of hatchery-born steelhead in the early 1980s to make them more readily distinguishable from wild steelhead, which anglers must throw back. In the 1990s, the wildlife department did so with hatchery coho and chinook; today, millions of Columbia River hatchery fish are marked this way.
"Focusing on mark-selected fishing as the magic tool to recover wild salmon populations is simply not going to work," says Stuart Ellis, a harvest management biologist for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fisheries Commission. The commission provides technical and policy advice to the four tribes with treaty fishing rights and commercial fisheries on the Columbia — the Yakama Nation, Nez Perce, Warm Springs, and Umatilla.
"Fisheries are not the 800-pound gorilla," Ellis says; mark-selected harvesting is largely just an "easy way" to avoid taking tougher action on the real issues, such as habitat loss.
And purse seining probably wouldn't be easy for most tribal and commercial fishermen on the Columbia, regardless of how effective it might be. Because it requires much larger boats and crews, it would be prohibitively expensive for gillnet fishermen to switch, Ellis says.
The fisheries commission is also worried that catching and releasing wild salmon could harm their health. Although data from selective-harvest programs show that very few fish die immediately after being caught and handled, there may be a "gantlet effect" if the same fish are repeatedly caught and released during their arduous journey from the sea to spawning grounds. "Our tribes regard doing things like clipping fish or catching fish and releasing them as simply playing with your food," Ellis says.
But selective harvesting offers one clear benefit: It gives the Colville tribes a chance to obtain enough salmon for everyone. In summer 2010, the program sent huge plastic totes filled with fish to each of the reservation's four districts three times a week. Mary Marchand, an 84-year-old documentarian for the tribes' history department, says some tribal members even had enough salmon to dry and can for the winter. Before selective harvesting, the tribes' 10,000 members took home only about 900 fish annually.
This story originally appeared in the Dec. 12, 2011 issue of High Country News (hcn.org).