Fishermen Form Sea Of Protest -- Jeers, Angry Words Greet Proposed Fishing Restrictions

BELLINGHAM - They appeared to be running out of patience, but angry fishermen who packed a hearing room here yesterday certainly weren't running out of adjectives.

Unfair, illogical, arbitrary, ridiculous and asinine were some of the more printable labels hung on a set of proposed regulations to reduce the size of nets used in commercial salmon fishing on Puget Sound and other inland waters.

For nearly three hours, a panel of five Fisheries Department representatives weathered criticism, jeers, howls and grumbles from some 200 gillnetters and purse seiners who said the proposed rules would cripple or kill their ability to make a living.

"This is nothing less than a wholesale attack on the viability of our industry," said Steven Arbaugh, president of the Puget Sound Gillnetters Association. "I guess we will have to see each other in court."

Several speakers accused Fisheries Director Joe Blum, who was not present, of intentionally trying to harm commercial fishermen to benefit sports fisheries.

Gillnetter Pete Knutson of West Seattle lamented "the shift in Department of Fisheries policy away from the production of food fish for the general public and towards a policy which subsidizes the recreation pleasure of the affluent."

Knutson drew loud and lengthy applause when he said Blum and Gov. Booth Gardner have no concern for blue-collar men and women supporting families by fishing. "They see the future of Puget Sound from the varnished decks of a corporate yacht," he said.

Others complained that tribal or Canadian fishermen will end up with the fish that American commercial fishermen aren't allowed to catch.

Although the lengthy packet of proposed regulations includes restrictions on almost every aspect of the fishing business, the most vehement criticism yesterday was aimed at plans to cut the length and depth of nets used by the state's approximately 600 active gillnetters.

Under the plan, the maximum allowable gill-net length would go from 1,800 feet to 1,200 feet. The depth of net, currently not restricted, would be limited for most salmon species to approximately 20 to 35 feet, depending on size of mesh.

In explaining the intent of the proposals, Bruce Sanford, fisheries-resource manager, said major coho runs returning to the Skagit and Stillaguamish rivers and Hood Canal are predicted to be at critically low levels this year.

He said officials had considered the "zero option" - allowing no commercial fishing - but instead sought ways to allow restricted seasons and catches.

Shallower nets, he said, may be less likely to catch non-target species and less likely to disturb fragile life on the bottom.

Fishermen disagreed, contending that if gillnetters are required to use shallower nets, they'll have to fish closer to the shore, thereby increasing the chance of dragging gear on the bottom.

Several speakers said that with Puget Sound commercial seasons starting in two months, there is no time or money for fishermen to buy new nets or modify the ones they have. And others noted bitterly that Indian fishermen wouldn't be subject to the net-size restrictions.

Evan Jacoby, hearing officer who conducted the session, assured fishermen their views will be considered as a decision is made on the proposals, but grumbles and a cry of "charade" showed the skepticism of some in the audience.

Blum is expected to make a decision on many of the proposals next week, but the gill-net-size restrictions will face another public hearing late next month in Olympia.

Yesterday, animosity toward Blum was evident before the hearing started, as a couple dozen fishermen carried signs outside the Port of Bellingham building blasting the director.

Some fishermen noted that their displeasure over state regulations isn't new but said the cuts proposed this year would be especially harmful.

"This is the first protest I've been in for a long, long time," said Bill Lowman, a 76-year-old gillnetter from Anacortes. "And it's too damned late in life for me to learn another trade."