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The Salmon Wars in the Pacific Northwest: Banning the Rough Customer

This week in Olympia, the Senate Agriculture Committee held a public hearing on Senate Bill 5617 to ban nontribal gillnetting in Washington state. The legislation would eliminate 445 small fishing businesses in rural and coastal areas.

Despite the treacherous snow conditions throughout western Washington, commercial fishermen and tribal representatives packed the chamber and an overflow room, driving through the slush from far-flung places like Wahkiakum, Skamania, Ilwaco, Astoria, the San Juan Islands, Willapa and Bellingham. Also present was a sprinkling of red-hatted CCA sport fishers, hoping to drive a stake through the heart of the commercial fishing industry.

As we line up outside the hearing room, I overhear one of the security detail refer to the fishing crowd in raingear, “These look like rough customers.” They maintain a close watch on us during the hearing.

Instead of providing the public with ample time to testify on this existential threat to fishing livelihoods, Committee Chair Van de Wege, Democrat from Port Angeles, squeezed all testimony on the net ban into a brief one-hour window at the end of the hearing. Placed ahead of the gillnet ban public testimony were bills discussing biochar, Walla Walla water issues, and whale watch restrictions. No time restrictions were placed on those testifiers.

After the fishermen had sat patiently for an hour and fifteen minutes listening to a drone of discussions about biochar, Walla Walla water issues and Orca whale watchers, they were then informed that they would now have one minute each to speak, subject to a red-light timer. One minute to coherently argue for your families’ livelihood! Prepared testimony had to be discarded. In frustration, one fisherman simply told the Committee, “OK, see my face. I exist!”

The gillnet ban bill’s sponsor, Jesse Salomon, is a newly-elected corporate Democrat from the prosperous Shoreline District of north Seattle. He raked in campaign contributions from sport-fish groups and oil companies, including Chevron, Texaco, Monsanto, and Tesoro. Notable cash also flowed his way from real estate interests and Walmart. His portfolio reminds me of Jimmy Carter’s assessment of the American political system as “legalized bribery.”

Chair Van de Wege tried to cut off any mention of this dark money. At the end of my sixty seconds, I mentioned this dark money. The Chair instantly bellowed through his microphone, “That’s it. You’re done!”

When cement mason and river activist Greg King from the Cowlitz testified, “We’re tired of these out-of-state groups based in Houston, Texas telling us what to do with the salmon” Van de Wege tried to stop him, declaiming, “That’s it, you’re referring to motive!” King pointed back at him, “This is freedom of speech Senator, and we’re tired of this!”

King was referring to the CCA, the Coastal Conservation Association. They came into the Pacific Northwest about ten years ago, established their regional office in Portland and organized local chapters. Well-funded, they maintain lobbyists in Salem and Portland and their red-meat issue is “ban gillnets.” They do not support challenges to industrial impacts on salmon, such as the movement to tear down the Snake River dams. Despite the conservation packaging, the CCA is an anger machine, used to gin up sport fishermen who see the “commercials” as taking “their fish.”

Founded by Exxon heir Walter Fondren III, CCA programs are directed by oil executives such as Bruce Culpepper (President of Shell), Orlando Alvarez (President of BP) and Henry Hagar (director of KKR and son-in-law of G.W. Bush). Before coming to the Pacific Northwest, they launched net ban campaigns in Florida, Texas and Louisiana, as chronicled by Robert Fritchey in his Wetland Riders. Essentially, the oil industry sees coastal commercial fishermen as potential liabilities since they have legal standing to sue for damages in the event of an oil spill—think Deepwater Horizon or Exxon Valdez. Replacing commercial fishery liabilities with a fleet of wealthy recreational fishers who have no legal standing is simply good bottom-line corporate planning. The small coastal fisheries stand in the way of big plans, like LNG terminals on the Columbia and massively increased tanker traffic through the Salish Sea bringing tar-sand oil to China.

Of course, with a 60 second time limit and a ban on discussion of “motive”, none of this could be explained at this public hearing. No time to seriously present scientific data on the selectivity of gillnets or the data demonstrating the incredible wastage of fish in the continuously open “hook and release” sport fisheries on the Orca’s primary food, Chinook salmon. No questions from any Senators for the assembled citizenry about to lose their livelihoods. Just a bored group of public officials, going through empty motions of democracy. Next.

However, Senator Salomon was given expansive time by Van de Wege to make sensational, unsubstantiated claims that banning gillnets would save 50,000 wild salmon per year. CCA representatives likewise were not held to the gillnetters’ 60 second rule as Salomon repeatedly pitched them softballs to further extend their time.

Northwest tribes are fully aware that the “ban gillnets” cry is racist dog whistle, Northwest style, from the days of the fish-ins on the Puyallup River in the 1960’s to the recent sport demonstrations at the Swinomish reservation. Check out any sport list-serv and you’ll not see dog whistle, but full-on old school racism.

The tribes—who use gillnets– are unified against this legislation, even though it is only targeted at non-tribal fishermen. Signed in at the hearing opposed were the Lummis, the Quileutes, the Hoh, the Stillaguamish, the Tulalip and the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
It was disappointing that conservation groups were absent. Tribes and commercial fishermen fought conservation battles on the Columbia and elsewhere long before the term environmentalism came into vogue. Whether the issue has been clear-cut logging, open-pit mining, coal trains, Snake River dam removal or farmed salmon disasters, conservationists have asked and been given our support as critical allies. Yet, now, as we get pushed to the edge, where are they?

Despite the impressive show of solidarity at the hearing between tribes, gillnetters and local officials from the economically depressed coastal communities, this SB 5671 will almost certainly move forward out of committee. With a well-oiled lobbying machine, the CCA, with Salomon in its pocket, effectively worked incoming senators to get 24 sign-ons, half the Senators in the legislature. They sold the bill as a feel-good Orca protection measure to both Republican and Democrat lawmakers. Gillnet fishermen were portrayed as the “deplorables,” the “rough customers” who don’t give a damn about Chinooks or Orca babies.

It’s not over. As Bill Hunsinger, Port of Astoria Commissioner, promised the Senate Committee, “You think we’re not going to fight? We’re going to fight!”

Watch the hearing at TVW (“brought to you by the Western States Petroleum Association”) Go to 1:15.

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Peter Knutson can be reached at peterknutson@comcast.net.

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