The Media's Love of Fishermen

“Surely environmentalists enjoyed having their claims embraced uncritically by the opinion-making apparatus of society. But this luxury has become counterproductive, allowing the movement to avoid facing the flaws of its arguments. If you love environmentalists, as you should, today the greatest favor you can do them is to toss cold water on their heads.” Gregg Easterbrook, A Moment on the Earth.94

Portland and Seattle newspapers—perhaps the primary information source for the majority of Oregon and Washington citizens—are virtually useless when it comes to covering the pernicious effects of harvest. Indeed, one of the largest newspaper features ever devoted to coverage of the plight of Northwest salmon, an entire pull-out section of the Sunday Oregonian called "River of Ghosts", listed the main causes for the decline of salmon populations in large graphics, but omitted overfishing entirely.

The media's image of salmon fishing is a romantic vision of a fisherman on his small boat, pulling in nets filled with Nature's bounty—never a factory trawler. Tribal fishing is especially romanticized.

Yet the growth in tribal gillnetting has a lot to do with the decline of upriver fish. Historically, upriver tribes mostly fished with spears and dipnets, not gill nets. No one has ever analyzed the overall impact of tribal gillnetting. Jake Tanzer, a former Oregon Supreme Court Justice who represented the State of Oregon during the epic court battles over tribal fishing rights, recalls that the named plaintiff in a lead case, Mr. Sohappy, used to leave his nets in the water so long without checking them that whatever was finally hauled out of the water was only good for cat food, if that. Barge operators on the Columbia report that this phenomenon continues today.95

Every once in a while, the media will print a letter to the editor that points out the pro-harvest bias. David Kaupanger wrote to the Idaho Statesman arguing that Idaho salmon runs thrived for decades while dams were in place, and logging, grazing and mining were in full development, and then declined coincident with the rise of tribal gill netting. The editorial department responded that most people disagreed with him. Nobody bothered to investigate the facts.

Mr. Kaupanger had the right idea, though. Upriver commercial fisheries (harvests above Bonneville Dam) have been reserved for the tribes since 1957. And as more and more dams were going in, they were harvesting more and more chinook salmon. Here is the data:

Figure 3: Upriver Tribal Commercial Harvest: 1957-199596

In fact, the real effect of salmon harvest above Bonneville Dam is probably worse than the graph makes it seem, because the graph is based on legal, reported harvest. The number of salmon unaccounted for between Bonneville and McNary Dams seem to vary directly with harvest levels; the fish unaccounted for may have been lost either through illegal harvest (unreported catch) or from the aftereffects of fishing effort (net or hook injuries, etc.).97

Other members of the public notice the double-standard for media coverage of salmon fishing, as compared to logging. David Niessner wrote to the Eugene Register-Guard to point out:

“I can pierce the mouth and lips of an endangered species with a metal hook, drag him through the water to the point of exhaustion, handle his delicate skin while determining if he’s wild, discard him at the water’s edge, and everything is OK. Yet for merely driving a log truck within a half mile of a spotted owl nest, I can be prosecuted for ‘harassing’ an endangered species. . . . Why do the media ignore this double standard? Have they become the promoters of a political cause?”.98

Nobody answered his question, but it’s a question I’ve thought about a lot.

For a long time, I failed to understand why the fishermen—including ocean-based industrialists of a sort—had such an enormous public relations advantage over my clients and other land-based industries. One important reason is that almost no one sees what is going on, because most fishing goes on out in the ocean where no one sees it. No news crews venture there. They lack initiative, and the fishermen are smart enough not to encourage them.

On a few occasions, observers have obtained clandestine footage of what goes on out in fishing boats. The waste and destruction caused by some fishing methods, particularly gill and drift-netting, does not show well on film. Observers witness the retrieval of giant gill nets, built to drown fish, hauling up all sorts of "incidental take"—including dead birds and dead marine mammals.

Such footage was used in California television ads supporting a successful initiative to shut down gill netting. When the proponents of a Washington state initiative which would have shut down gillnetting tried to put similar ads on TV in Seattle, the fishermen got two Seattle TV stations to refuse to run them. No one has yet produced any sort of decent documentary that would actually show people the harvest process. Of course, chicken farms aren’t pretty either.

In the salmon context, to borrow a sentence from Paul Weaver, the “media are less a window on reality than a stage on which officials and journalists perform self-scripted, self-serving fictions”.99 Fishery officials and environmentalists proclaim that a “crisis” is upon us, as they have been doing for decades. They blame everyone but fishermen. And journalists dutifully reprint their press releases. Contrary press releases, like those issued by Bruce Lovelin of the Columbia River Alliance, are usually ignored or dismissed out of hand as biased.

Despite the constant blast of pro-fishermen, anti-dam propaganda, however, the public is not easily fooled. A 1996 survey conducted by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife showed that more than twice as many people blame overfishing, particularly commercial fishing, for the decline in fish populations in Washington as blame hydroelectric production.100

94 G. Easterbrook, A Moment on the Earth 369.

95 B. Harden, A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia 54 (W.W. Norton 1996); see generally R. Crittenden, Salmon at Risk 52-53 (Self-published June 1997)(citing examples of “Indian Wastage” of salmon).

96 Source: “Status Report: Columbia River Fish Runs and Fisheries, 1938-95”, at 34-35 (Table 18) (WDFW/ODFW Aug. 1996).

97 Some data are available from S. Cramer & S. Vigg's 1996 paper on the subject.

98 The Register-Guard, Aug. 6, 1996.

99 P. Weaver, “Selling the Story”, New York Times, July 29, 1994, at A13.

100 See Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Opinion Survey 1996, Summary of Responses, at 6 (Table 29) (24% blame “hydroelectric, 39% “commercial fishing”, 8% “recreational fishing”, and 12% “fishing by Native Americans”).

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