Cantwell Casts a Net for Fishing Advice

By:  Matt Winters
Source: The Chinook Observer

“This is the culture of our state, this is about a way of life,” U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell told a packed house of about 30 Pacific County fishing/shellfish industry representatives Saturday in the Port of Ilwaco’s tiny boardroom.

Noting that fishing in all its various forms is a pillar of the county’s economy, Washington’s third-term junior senator, a Democrat, said “we want to keep it that way.”

She expects to win passage this spring of the “crab bill.” This will ensure Washington’s most lucrative fishery continues operating under the generally popular tri-state process, in which the three mainland West Coast states negotiate season details among themselves. Cantwell also noted that reauthorization of the far-reaching Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act is coming up soon, something that will benefit from local input.

Meeting attendees peppered her with numerous suggestions and concerns, several of which go to the heart of industry survival.

Industry elder statesman Dale Beasley — who sold his crabbing operation last year to a younger local man — told Cantwell that such transitions are becoming more and more difficult.

“We’ve got to really work on this next generation of fishermen. The debt load is so staggering for these guys that we’ve got to maybe look … to get some funding for licenses to stay in these ports,” Beasley said. “We’ve got to get fishing permits back in our community for the future.”

Cantwell said she is familiar with this dilemma. At one point, she and her staff started looking into whether federal programs originally designed to support farmers could be adapted to help finance inter-generational transfers of fishing permits and quotas. But this earlier effort stalled out.

“I think the problem was the ag people didn’t want us to open their program to fish,” Cantwell said, “and then we had to create a new program — but where do we house it?” On Saturday, she instructed staff members to revive their efforts.

River and ocean access

Cantwell brought news that on March 16 the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers issued a contract to McAmis Construction for emergency dredging at Baker Bay, with an anticipated start late this month or early April. The deteriorating condition of Ilwaco’s access channel through the bay was a primary topic of concern during the 90-minute meeting chaired by Ilwaco Port Commissioner Butch Smith.

Smith stressed that every commercial fishing boat in the harbor is, in essence, a separate family business. Together with charter-fishing operations like his, Smith said they confront a growing list of threats, perhaps topped by the failure of pile dikes that keep sediment from sloughing off into the narrow corridor linking Ilwaco with the main stem of the Columbia River. Pile dikes are partially submerged solid fences usually made of wooden pilings driven deep into the ground. Some of those guarding navigation routes in the Columbia estuary haven’t been rebuilt in decades.

While emphasizing that the port enjoys a positive working relationship with the Corps of Engineers’ Portland District, Smith said current federal rules require the corps to undertake a study estimated to cost $800,000 and to take four or five years to complete before dike reconstruction might commence. He implored the senator to help the corps expedite or avoid this process, something she indicated she will look into.

Belief in science

Beasley spoke up in favor fighting for ocean-science funding, noting that the warming Pacific and other factors have pushed the mammoth Dungeness crab fishery to the brink of ruin. Domoic acid, a neurotoxin produced by a type of marine algae that prefers warmer water, has delayed recent seasons and a minor outbreak resulted in closure of a hundred miles of Oregon coast to harvesting for a time last year.

“We’re one crab away from disaster,” Beasley said of the Columbia River-based fleet, urging more federally funding research. “We’re not afraid of good science here in this room,” he said.

He said poorly designed scientific modeling wrecked the local trawling industry, with catch limits incorrectly based on quantities of species brought back to sell, rather than all that were being caught and dumped back into the ocean, as required by federal rules. Comparing trawling’s plight with that of Pacific Northwest logging, Beasley said some types of fish are “the spotted owls of the ocean.” Better counting methods could bring trawling back to Ilwaco, along with hundreds of jobs, he said.

Other issues

Ilwaco Mayor Mike Cassinelli also endorsed fishing’s importance, telling Cantwell, “Without the fishing industry, we would just go away.”

But Cassinelli also asked Cantwell for a broader approach to helping coastal communities in the realms of transportation and information technology. For example, he said U.S. Highway 101, a federal route, urgently needs maintenance and enhancements to more easily link the coast with inland markets.

Broadband internet service and cellphone service have failed to keep up with regional standards, Cassinelli said, something he hopes the senator can intervene in. She responded that her office recently parlayed better communication links between Port Angeles and the remote Olympic Peninsula town of Neah Bay. She told her staff to start a similar process of pushing service providers for improvements here.

Shellfish industry representatives Kathleen Nisbet Moncy and Marilyn Sheldon primarily spoke to the senator about state rather than federal issues — particularly frustrations over trying to obtain a state permit to chemically control burrowing shrimp that are spoiling Willapa Bay oysterbeds.

Sheldon noted that beds are private land, and that their owners ought to be allowed to spray pests and weeds with no more objections and regulations than terrestrial farmers face. Moncy said her family’s Goose Point Oysters farm lost 150 acres to shrimp in 2016 and stands to lose twice as much this year.