Fishing industry suffers with salmon runs at historic low


PORTLAND -- Fertilizer salesman Rex Harke had planned to take 12 of his most loyal clients on a salmon-fishing expedition down the Columbia River this week.

Normally at this time, the spring chinook salmon are charging up the river in the tens of thousands, heading from the Pacific Ocean to their spawning beds.

But in a phenomenon that has puzzled environmentalists and government biologists, this season the fish have failed to appear. The alarmingly low numbers have prompted officials to halt sport and commercial fishing on the river -- and Harke reluctantly called his guide to cancel.

It was one of 57 cancellations that Clancy Holt, the president of the Sportfishing Guides of Washington and an avid salmon fisherman, said he received in the three weeks since the closure was announced last month. In all, he has returned $10,000 in deposits to clients such as Harke, whose group was expecting to fly in from Colorado, California and Washington.

Charan Sandhu, the manager of the Kalama River Inn on the Washington side of the Columbia, said he also is seeing cancellations. In the past 10 days, he said, he's processed 65 -- mostly from fishermen.

The closure's economic effect is hitting the fishing industry hard, with ripples in communities up and down the river, said Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association. She estimates the region will lose as much as $10 million as a result of the closure.

"It just puts a black cloud over the area that is very hard to overcome," Hamilton said.

Fishing-tackle manufacturers are especially affected.

In February, when fishery managers were predicting a high run, salmon lures were selling by the grocery bag -- hundreds at a time, said Buzz Ramsey, the regional sales manager of Luhr Jensen & Sons, the country's largest manufacturer of salmon lures.

Now, the company has been forced to lay off five employees, after sales fell 7 percent compared with the same time last year.

This week, Oregon's and Washington's fish and wildlife departments are expected to slash their forecast for spring chinook expected to enter the mouth of the Columbia River from the Pacific Ocean to around 80,000 -- about a third of the 254,000 they had initially predicted.