Smarter, Faster, More Efficient Fishermen

The rise of downriver gillnetting was defended as giving larger employment. The comparatively few fixed sites for salmon harvest, like Celilo Falls, recognized for generations as the easiest place to catch salmon, were replaced at the front of the salmon harvest line by an entire fleet of gillnetters. At first, those were small (often father and son) sailboats. The gillnetters simply outnumbered their opponents and got the old ways outlawed. In Oregon and Washington, public initiatives outlawed fish traps and fish wheels. In doing so, the States of Oregon and Washington legislated inefficiency and waste in the short-run interest of larger employment.

Technology quickly undermined the premise of that legislative choice. No longer is there a huge fleet of small family-owned boats. Instead, there are large, capital-intensive boats, with large nets pulled in by automatic winches, not hand over fist. The rise of fishing technology was recently summarized in the Scientific American:

"An explosion of fishing technologies occurred during the 1950s and 1960s. During that time, fishers adapted various military technologies to hunting on the high seas. Radar allowed boats to navigate in solid fog, and sonar made it possible to detected schools of fish deep under the oceans' opaque blanket. Electronic navigation aids such as LORAN (Long-Range Navigation) and satellite positioning systems turned the trackless sea into a grid so that vessels would return to within 50 feet of a chosen location, such as sites where fish gathered and bred. Ships can now receive satellite weather maps of water-temperature fronts, indicating where fish will be traveling. Some vessels work in conjunction with aircraft used to spot fish."32

James Bohnsack, a research scientist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, warns that while overfishing was limited for years by deep waters, bad weather and imprecise navigation, “[n]ow we have the technology, the tools, to catch that last fish”.33 Environmentalists ought to view this as the land-based equivalent to clear-cutting ancient forests.

32 C. Safina, "The World's Imperiled Fish", Scientific American, Nov. 1995, at 48-49.

33 Quoted in R. Hill, “Scientists call for protecting oceans”, The Oregonian, Feb. 17, 1997.

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