BILL and Bonnie McKnight never planned it this way, but their life and their livelihood have become part of the fight to save endangered species.
The McKnights are commercial fishermen, and have been for nearly 20 years. They fish the Pacific out of Astoria, Ore., near the mouth of the Columbia River on their boat, "Dream," a beauty made in 1938 from old-growth fir and cedar. This week they're trolling for snapper and black cod, waiting like thousands of other commercial fishermen up and down the Pacific to hear whether they'll be allowed to fish for salmon this year.
Salmon are the premier commercial fish hereabouts and the defining symbol for the Pacific Northwest. But native salmon stocks have been declining steadily for years, and now several stocks are officially listed (or are about to be listed) as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The Pacific Fisheries Management Council (a federal agency which oversees fishing from three miles off the United States coast out to 200 miles) will decide this week whether salmon can be taken, and it's down to a choice between reduced catches and none at all.
"We've basically given up on it," says Bill McKnight as he baits his trolling hooks with chunks of herring. "That's why we're trying to develop other fisheries. At least our boat's paid for."
While commercial fishing is one part of the salmon survival story, everyone agrees it is just one relatively small part. The main problem for salmon, biologists say, is the loss of spawning habitat upstream. Irrigation and chemical runoff from farming, logging along streams that causes siltation, commercial and residential development, and recreation all have an impact. Above all, it's the series of massive federal hydropower dams along the Columbia and Snake Rivers dating back to the 1930s which disrupt s the natural water flow essential for migrating fish.
Some dams were built without fish ladders to help returning salmon get to their spawning grounds. Massive turbines chew up millions of small fish. And even where there are protective devices at the turbines, delays in the warmer water behind the dams on the downstream runs leave young salmon susceptible to disease and predators.
"It doesn't do any good to save fish in the ocean if they come up the river and hit a wall of death," says Chet Lounsbury, taking a break from repairs to his boat the "C-Ann." Like many fishermen who spend much of their lives on the river or ocean, Mr. Lounsbury recognizes the need to moderate human activity if salmon are to survive. "The salmon is the only barometer we have to tell us about the quality and the quantity of the water system," he says. "I don't know what the answer is, except [that] the ri vers need some work, and they need it now."
There have been experiments with reservoir drawdowns to help young salmon get back out to the ocean. And there are plans for regularly adjusting water flow in favor of salmon in ways that will impact irrigators, barge operators, and electricity users.
But, for now, it is fishermen who seem to be bearing the heaviest burden in making up for years of river mismanagement.
"Let's face it, our future is fish," says Bob Eaton, executive director of "Salmon for All," a lobbying group representing Columbia River fishermen and fish processors. "But until other parts of the system change dramatically, you can zero us out and the fish still won't come back."
"They can bring it back," says Bonnie McKnight, baiting hooks with her husband. "But everybody's got to make a sacrifice."
For many along the Columbia and the Pacific Coast, salmon represent not only a source of income but a way of life. "I don't have anything else going. This is what I do," says Larry Carlson as he works on his boat called "Halo" in port for repairs. "Fortunately, I have a wife who works; otherwise, I wouldn't be able to fish."
The biology, the politics, and the economics of migrating salmon in the Columbia Basin are so complex as to make the situation with the spotted owl and Northwest timber look relatively simple. But the human side of the equation is much the same.
"Unfortunately, fishermen are a lot like loggers," says Mrs. McKnight. "It's a lifestyle, and you get used to being outside, to being independent. The thought of having to work in an office is pretty scary to us."