Story by Anna Smith
Photos by Emily Fraysse
The boats of Salmon Harbor in Winchester Bay, Oregon, sit unperturbed in their berths, bare metal masts bristling towards the sky. Gulls swoop down toward the murky water and then up again, their wailing calls the only noise in the harbor aside from a few boats bumping against the dock with a dull thud and the smack of sloshing water. Amongst The Grizzly, The Colby Lee, and The Irish Miss sits The Sea Princess, a fishing boat built in 1929 that is now used for trolling. Her white and blue paint looks dull, as do most things that are regularly exposed to the open sea. Her fish hold, accessible only by a narrow ladder into the bowels of the ship, can hold 20 tons of fish and has been scrubbed thoroughly in preparation for the next fishing season. The salty oceans have changed much over her 84 years, and the wild-caught salmon that she trolls for have not fared well; their population is declining.
The owners of The Sea Princess, Mark and Cynthia Schneider, have felt the impact of declining salmon runs since they started their commercial fishing business, Catch of the Sea, in 1989. Although they experienced good catches during the late 1980s, Mark Schneider says they have not caught close to the same amount for a long time. While they used to catch at least 100 fish a day during the late 1990s and have caught upwards of 350 in a day before, today an average catch brings in only 35 to 45 salmon. Since 2005, Schneider says, there hasn’t been many salmon, and from 2008 to 2010 they weren’t allowed to fish at all. Schneider says they fish tuna these days to make up the losses in salmon.
Mark, 51, walks around The Sea Princess with ease, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his denim jeans and wearing a red hoodie to protect from the chilly wind that slices through the harbor. Cynthia, 50, hangs out on the back of the boat, periodically checking a crab trap that, with any luck, will provide dinner. Her eyes recall the same colors of a shallow tropic sea with pale and dark blues with a hint of green. Along with her short blonde hair, her features contrast sharply with Mark’s dark eyes and salt and pepper hair and mustache.
Before they launched Catch of the Sea, the couple owned Schneider’s Acres, a ranching business in Wasco County near Portland. Eventually property values and timber sales in the area decreased, and they decided to start something new. Although they had limited background as anglers, the Schneiders saw a “For Sale” ad in The Oregonian for a fishing boat and decided to take the opportunity and change in lifestyle.
Now, with The Sea Princess, they catch salmon and tuna using hook and line; a method that differs from other commercial trawlers that use large nets to capture whole schools of fish. With hook and line, the Schneiders handle each fish individually.
Mark Schneider remembers the days before small fish runs affected his business. “This particular harbor was full of sport boats,” Schneider says, looking out at the water. “They’d go Coho salmon fishing and the whole port was just jammed full of boats. Used to be a lot more salmon when they actually ran the hatcheries.”
Salmon hatcheries were first introduced to the Pacific Northwest in 1877, when over-fishing began to have a serious impact on wild salmon runs. More recently, these mitigation hatcheries were set up to minimize the impact of hydroelectric dams on salmon populations and habitat. Hatcheries use tanks to create an artificial environment for breeding salmon. When these salmon reach smolt stage, or juvenile stage, the fish are released into rivers. Hatcheries are usually run by the Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW), and are paid for by allocated tax dollars. There are a few commercial hatcheries, but they don’t release fish into streams for public use. Instead, they sell the juvenile fish to private customers.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Pacific Northwest currently relies on DFW hatcheries to produce 70 to 80 percent of coastal salmon and steelhead runs, but NOAA questions if hatcheries are entirely helpful to maintaining salmon populations, suggesting they may be a detrimental source of competition.
To Mark Schneider, hatchery salmon and wild salmon are the same. “[People] think the hatchery fish diminish the wild [salmon] stocks,” Mark says. “As far as we’re concerned they’re all salmon. Scientifically, you can’t identify a hatchery fish. I think the hatchery fish is just as wild.”
According to Robert Lackey, a political science professor at Oregon State University who has nearly 40 years of experience working with fisheries, the term “wild” doesn’t mean much. “[It] is a political definition,” Lackey says. “What is a wild salmon? Is it a salmon that has never had ancestors in a hatchery? Well, then in the Northwest there are zero wild salmon.”
Lackey says that the two biggest factors impeding wild salmon are extreme loss of habitat caused by agriculture, dams, logging, and more, as well as the impact of hatchery fish.
“If society was really serious about doing something for recovering wild salmon, and that’s an assumption, what things would they do? They would close fishing, period. Why are we fishing for something listed under the ESA [Endangered Species Act]?” Lackey asks. “Secondly why are we putting hatchery fish out there to compete? We’d close fisheries, and we’d close fishing. But both of those are nonstarters. Both of those things aren’t going to happen. So my conclusion is that we’re not really serious about wild salmon.” Conversely, Lackey points out the benefits people have gained from this the dams and cleared land: electricity, low risk of floods, places to live, rich agriculture land, the list goes on. To him, it is a matter of the public choosing their priorities.
To Mark Schneider, who is reliant on fishing for his livelihood, hatcheries aren’t a problem at all. “I think [habitat loss has] been a factor, but that kind of thing can be negated by human intervention,” Schneider says. “That’s what hatcheries are for. I think they could be utilized a lot better than they are.” Schneider is a proponent of hatch boxes, a technique where salmon eggs are incubated in a box in a river. When they hatch, the salmon minnows, known as fry, wriggle out of the box and into the stream. Schneider supports this method because he believes it as the most cost effective way to increase salmon populations.
Another issue facing fishermen like Schneider is farmed salmon in places like Chile, Scotland, Norway, Washington, and Canada. Farmed fish have been around for years, especially since the US government subsidies helped to fund aquaculture in the 1930s. Grown in net pens in the ocean, grown, farmed salmon are then taken out when they are at harvestable size. Private companies own these operations, though net pens are illegal in Oregon. “You can go to Costco or Safeway…and you can buy salmon year round just like chicken,” Lackey explains. “They’re fairly inexpensive, very consistent quality, and they’re not seasonal.” But salmon, he notes, are seasonal creatures.
With the addition of farmed fish to the market, the price of salmon dropped dramatically, slashing profits for commercial fishermen. Now, Schneider says, the farmed salmon industry is having issues with disease. In a worldwide assessment of the impact farmed salmon have on wild salmon stocks, it was found that the populations of native salmon declined 50 percent when they interacted with farmed fish. In terms of interaction, this can mean interbreeding from escaped fish, diseases like sea lice, and competition for food and spawning resources.
The most recent shock to commercial salmon anglers was the news of a genetically modified salmon known as AquAdvantage, created by the Canadian company AquaBounty. According to an environmental assessment drafted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in May 2012, the agency, “concluded that food from the AquAdvantage salmon is as safe as food from a conventional Atlantic salmon, and that there is a reasonable certainty of no harm from consumption of…AquAdvantage Salmon.” Nicknamed the ‘Frankenfish’ by opponents of genetically engineered (GE) salmon, the FDA has issued a Finding of No Significant Impact document, meaning that approval is moving forward after a public comment period that ends April 26, 2013.
Because AquAdvantage farms will be located in Panama and Canada instead of the United States, it falls outside the US National Environmental Policy act. Thus, the FDA is not required to take into account the environmental effects of AquAdvantage.
Mark Schneider and his fellow fishermen have heard AquAdvantage salmon can grow twice as fast as a non-GE salmon and the reaction, perhaps unsurprisingly, is not welcoming. “No one in the [fishing] industry would like to see it happen,” he says. “I don’t think that GE salmon is like corn or soybeans or plants. When you start genetically engineering critters, I think it’s different. They have no idea what long-term effects there will be. If a fish like that gets out into the wild, which could happen, that could cause some serious genetic problems for salmon.”
Although the company has assured consumers that the fish will be grown in enclosed farms and will be mostly sterile, concerns still arise politically and culturally.
In the meantime, Mark and Cynthia Schneider are doing their best with their business, continuing their hook-and-line fishing practices and selling most of their catch to New Seasons, a chain of grocery stores in Portland that offers local and organic foods. The Schneiders send their fish to micro-canneries, who can the fish in their natural juices. “Our fish is more expensive when it comes to dollars and cents, but in that you’re also getting the Omega 3 oil that was naturally in the fish,” Mark Schneider says. “In conventionally canned fish, you don’t get that.”
Although the salmon run populations have been in the decline, the Schneiders plan on continuing their hook and line business. “The future of our fishing business is uncertain, but that is also not a bad thing. It keeps us working on making better decisions,” Schneider says. “What humans have to decide is that we are part of nature and the natural progression even though we think we can control nature.”