2020 is Perfect Vision

Bob Rees

My vision is actually 20/30 according to my last eye exam, a necessity every five years to renew my US Coast Guard 6-pack license for my professional fish guiding business, or at least what’s left of it.

It’s been a hard couple of years in the fish guiding business. Last year, we had a decent return of Chinook salmon to the lower Columbia River, but coho flopped, the ocean remains warm and lethal to most cold-water fishes and a low water fall likely killed about half of an already compromised north coast fall Chinook return when we were in desperate need of rebuilding.

Maybe my 2020 resolution should be to be more cheery. It’s pretty hard, however, when you’re reliant on abundant salmon and steelhead runs to make your living.

The last time our salmon stocks suffered so greatly, we turned our customers onto a robust sturgeon population on the lower Columbia River and it paid dividends. We grew a good sturgeon clientele on the backs of these iconic fish, often eclipsing the age of 70, 80 or even 100 years old. What once was a generous 60 day season is now 11, hardly enough to make a living at.

It’s not all bad news, but it’s not all good news either. Alaska’s cod fishery is closing for the first time in history. I worked on numerous trawlers in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea in my younger years. This will hit a lot of hard working fishermen. On the other hand, trawlers along the Oregon and Washington Coasts will see a surprise opportunity in the re-opening of long-closed groundfish fishery that devastated coastal ports two decades ago. It’s been called a rare conservation victory and justifiably so.

Despite being rather silent from The Guide’s Forecast “Soapbox Update” for the last year and a half, I, along with my colleagues in the fishing industry and conservation community, have still been working diligently on fish recovery. Whether it’s organizing my fellow fishermen to gather at a Senator Ron Wyden Town Hall, or bringing together concerned anglers to Governor Inslee’s Stakeholder Process, there are some glaring similarities to the challenge of getting anglers interested in these important issues. I kinda live and breathe this stuff and I’m only mildly interested.

Our community is beaten down, often disgruntled and continually handed down a seat on the sidelines while other “stakeholders,” (such as hydropower, other water users and industries that degrade salmon habitat) grab an unfair share of the public’s fish. It reminds me of the image of predators feeding on baitfish except these are our salmon and steelhead, and these diminished runs can’t take much more harvest.

I remain convinced that’s what my fellow anglers need – a visual of what it’s like out there and what true recovery looks like. I’m in the process of developing some of those visually stimulating scenarios for the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, graphs and graphics that show how much we’ve lost since Snake River Dams were put in place, and many might remember, like me, what the 2001 Columbia River spring Chinook run looked like. A 7-day/week fishery with a 2-fish bag limit with awesome fishing at Bonneville Dam. It’s been a while since I landed 47 spring Chinook in three days, do you think it will ever happen again?

Maybe that’s just it, many of us have given up hope that it will ever happen again. I have to remind the disgruntled anglers (including myself) that I never thought we’d get to keep wild coho again, even wild cutthroat trout. We did gain those fisheries back, and as I previously mentioned, the expansive rockfish conservation area (RCA) will re-open to bottom trawling, and sportfishing opportunity has expanded fairly significantly in recent years after many scientists believed we wouldn’t see opportunity like that again in our lifetimes.

Our recent successes required bold moves from the industry, stakeholders, fishery managers and policy-makers. Those bold moves were required under well-thought-out laws such as the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA), which is due for reauthorization, overdue actually.

Those bold moves were required to keep those depleted stocks of rockfish from heading the way of the dodo bird and sadly, that’s often still what it takes to get agencies and policy-makers to move on critical issues. I guess that’s why they call them “critical issues.”

Join me in a creative visualization exercise…

What if instead of getting maybe 4-7 days in April to pursue spring Chinook on the lower Columbia River, we go back to when we had more than 400,000 adult spring Chinook returning and we fished for 30 days instead? Go to Save Our Wild Salmon to see how you can help.

What if, instead of spending gobs of money and energy to catch five rockfish in the ocean this year, you could catch and keep 7, 8 or 10 instead? Are you at all worried about our depleted forage fish stocks that feed these rockfish, salmon, halibut and albacore? We need a strong MSA reauthorization. Go to the Marine Fish Conservation Network to see what you can do.

What if 10 or 20 of us showed up for a Senator Wyden, Senator Merkley or a district Congresswoman/Congressman Town Hall that happen with some regularity in our region of Oregon or whatever state you happen to reside in? Contact me at brees@pacifier.com if you have an interest in this!

What if we had 100,000 spring Chinook coming back to the Willamette River this April, May and June. Wouldn’t it be fun to catch your kid or grandkids their first salmon right in downtown Portland? We’re a LONG ways off from consistently getting 100,000 spring Chinook back to the basin, but we’re developing a roadmap to do it.

So let’s do this together this year. 2020 is a perfect vision, but we’re in messed up times. Maybe this is the year we give back to our fishery resources, instead of only taking from them. Let’s make it a Happy New Year and thank you to all my fishing friends who have already shown up for fish at the Washington and Clackamas County Wyden Town Hall events, and the Vancouver hearing on Snake River Dams. I appreciate you!

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About Bob Rees

Bob Rees is a professional fishing guide and executive director of the Northwest Guides and Anglers Association.

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