A Heritage Lost -- Coastal Washington Salmon Economy In Ruins

Once wealthy in salmon, the small towns that dot the shores of Western Washington were built on fishing. Today, the salmon are mostly found in old photos tucked into worn albums. A trip to the coast finds residents pining for the old days while trying to carve a living out of tourism, gambling and other ventures.

WESTPORT, Grays Harbor County - Out here on Washington's coast, salmon are everywhere.

Trophy salmon plasticized in mid-jump decorate restaurant walls. Illuminated salmon glow from motel marquees. There are salmon lawn ornaments, boats named after salmon, and salmon key chains, T-shirts and coffee cups in the souvenir stores. Salmon are abundant everywhere except where it counts: in the water.

To preserve dwindling fish runs, fish managers on Friday recommended the most restrictive fishing seasons ever, short of a total closure, for the coast, Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound.

The news was not unexpected - especially for coastal fishing towns, where every year since the late 1980s seasons have been shorter and fishing quotas smaller.

A trip around the Olympic Peninsula last week found some towns and tribes already remaking their economies, images and identities as fish runs decline. In others, people still hope the fish will come back.

But in what once was one of the country's premier fishing regions, nobody counts on living off salmon anymore.

Talk about salmon turned not to this year's season, but to the past. As the fish stories unfolded, resort operators and motel owners inevitably reached for a photo album.

The albums are stuffed with yellowed pictures of marinas crammed with boats and grinning fishermen hoisting salmon thick as a thigh and long as man.

WESTPORT AND ILWACO, at the mouth of the Columbia River, used to vie for the title of salmon capital of the world. In Sekiu, on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, sport fishermen reserved boat moorages a year in advance and lined the only road into town when seasons started.

Out here salmon fishing has always been more than a sport or a way of making a living. It's been a way of life, said Milt Gudgell, owner of Pacific Salmon Charters in Ilwaco, Pacific County.

"We used to have crowds of people just watching the boats unload. I've seen the docks in Ilwaco awash with people. You don't see that anymore.

"Fishing is part of our heritage in the Northwest and we are losing it. Who wants to be like everywhere else?"

"This town has basically died," Gudgell said. "We always knew we were going to go fishing and there would be lots and lots of fishing. Now the question is whether there are any fish to catch."

In Westport, charter-boat offices on the main drag along the dock have been replaced with kite shops, candy stores, art galleries, book stores and cafes serving lattes to tourists.

Mini-vans cruised the strip last week and a loudspeaker serenaded wandering shoppers with easy-listening singles. Inside souvenir shops tourists bought iron-on T-shirt transfers of tribal salmon art, tiny lighthouses with thermometers in them, sea horse wind chimes and shot glasses calibrated Sober, Buzzed, Happy and Bombed.

The shops have been good news in a town that needed to diversify. But change has come at a cost.

At Grace Ann's Candies & Gifts, Grace Ann Manzie-Werner sells 100 flavors of saltwater taffy, chocolate, fudge and knickknacks including a plastic Betty Boop bubble blower that cranks out orange, grape and cherry-scented bubbles.

"The feel of a fishing town is gone and the romance that goes with that," said Manzie-Warner, a Westport resident for more than 20 years. "It's diminished that way of life. There's a lot of pride in what fishermen do.

"People say there's no reason to go to Westport anymore and I get mad when they say that. The reasons have changed. People come to walk the beach, get rid of the Seattle-itis."

ON THE WESTPORT DOCKS Dale McDaniel worked his way through a bucket of herring heads aboard the Nyoda, a wooden fishing troller built in 1939. He speared each fish head with a hook, getting his bait ready for a black cod fishing trip. He doesn't bother fishing for salmon.

"They keep cutting you back, it's just gone downhill. They say we killed everything but we just did what the fisheries managers told us we could do."

Doug Fricke, president of the Washington Trollers Association, said fishermen used to be able to land more than 100,000 salmon during a season that stretched out over six months. Trollers are the artists of the commercial salmon fleet, often fishing from picturesque wooden boats with a hook and line.

Today, trollers measure their seasons in days and weeks. The Pacific Fishery Management Council on Friday set a 1998 season that cuts their salmon harvest to the second-lowest level ever.

Trollers may harvest 6,500 chinook in 1998, down from 11,500 fish last year and nearly 50,000 fish 10 years ago.

The council cut the recreational salmon harvest, including fish caught by sport-charter boats, by 50 percent from last year, leaving fishermen "happy to have anything at all," said Kelly Westrick of Washington Charters in Westport.

The coast was closed to fishing in 1994.

Fish managers have set tighter and tighter limits on fishing as salmon runs diminish up and down the West Coast. The years of shorter seasons have decimated the commercial- and charter-fishing fleets.

Trollers have declined from 3,141 boats in the 1970s to 325 boats registered this year. Many of those boats won't actually land any fish; fishermen just hold onto their licenses, hoping better fishing days will return.

In Puget Sound, the gill net fleet has dropped from 1,659 boats in 1975 to about 880 today.

In Westport, where about 300 charter boats used to tie up, there are now 25 boats, and charter operators push whale watching along with tuna and bottom fishing.

"Boats that relied on salmon are out of business," said Steve Westrick, a Westport charter-boat skipper.

The transition to whale-watching and other fishing has been tricky. "The tough part was getting the public to understand there's more to Westport than going salmon fishing, and it still is," Westrick said. "People in Seattle don't know you can still come to Westport and catch a bunch of fish."

UP THE COAST AT THE QUINAULT reservation, the number of blueback sockeye salmon boxed at the tribe's fish-packing plant was tiny one day last week - just three fish.

The tribe has switched from packing sleek salmon to black cod and the much-ridiculed red snapper, dubbed idiot fish for its pop-eyed expression.

Instead of passing on the art and craft of fishing, tribal member Van Rosander, 35, wants his kids to break the tradition.

"I'm lucky if I make enough fishing to pay for a tank of gas to get up river," he said. "I'm hoping my kids get into computers. I'd rather not have them get into fishing. It's not worth it. You gotta make a change to make a living."

At the mouth of the Quinault River, a half-dozen eagles circled as Jerome Billie cut across the water in a leaky outboard-powered boat, headed for gill nets slung close to the bank.

This fishing spot has been in his family for three generations, and is one of the better ones, close to the mouth of the river. But when Billie, a Quinault, lifted the net to check for salmon, it was empty.

Gill nets that used to bulge with 200 blueback sockeye, famous for their oily red meat, yield 10 fish on a good day now.

A few miles from the Quinault River, the salmon served in a fancy restaurant overlooking the Pacific are pale pink, pellet-fed, Atlantic salmon grown at a fish farm.

The Quinault aren't counting on the sea or the river that bears their name for a living anymore. Instead they are building a casino.

FOR THE MAKAH NATION at the top of Washington's coast, change will come harder. Living at the edge of the country, where the road dead-ends at the rocky cliffs of the Pacific, casino gambling is not an option.

Instead, the tribe is getting into aquaculture, hoping to raise mussels by the millions on ropes dangling from a $3.5 million marina opened last year with state, tribal and federal money.

Bird-watching, whale-watching, and other ecotourism ventures are contemplated.

But Neah Bay is a town where horses still slow traffic in town,

and dogs nap comfortably on the road. If change comes, it's going to be slowly. And some don't want it.

"Tourism is a double-edged sword," said Harry "Champ" McCarty, a Makah Tribal Council member. "Our tribe was a fishing tribe. Our home was the ocean."

About 230 tribal members once worked the salmon fishery, the tribe's largest employer. Now about 60 tribal members fish from 15 boats.

"We are survivors. We have to adapt to what's come down the line," McCarty said. "We are looking at tourism, but we are just at the beginning of that stage. You go into tourism and there are sacrifices, sharing the area with other people.

"We are pretty quiet here. It's not too fast a life. That's something a lot of people here enjoy. If we go in the direction of tourism, we have to share our beaches, our ocean, most everything. There's public relations, advertising, accommodations.

"We are right on the brink of everything, on a transition point of going into something new, while still hanging onto that wish of getting more salmon."

Gordon Smith, chairman of the Makah Fisherman's Association, said it's hard for him to picture his people making a living from anything but the sea.

"Kite shops? That ain't gonna happen. The history of this tribe is the ocean. That's where we have always made our living since time began."

Suggesting that people follow the jobs to the glass towers of Seattle misses the point. It's simply not an option.

"I've lived on the East Coast, California, Seattle, and I am back here," Smith said. "It's hard to describe why we want to be here. It's because we have been here for thousands of years, and we always will be here. The people who grew up here, they almost always come back."

There used to be five salmon-fishing resorts in town. Now there is one. The Neah Bay salmon resort, tucked in the crook of an arm of salt water on the way into town, is a pile of rubble now.

Alder are reclaiming the grass. The sounds of tide rinsing over sea stacks and logging trucks roaring past nearby clear-cuts are the only break in the quiet. A price list for moorage, RV hookups, camp sites and cabins is crumpled on the floor of the resort office in a pile of broken glass.

Linoleum curls in the rain in the vandalized guest cottages, where gaudy wallpaper fights a losing battle against graffiti, mildew and mold.

IN SEKIU, sport-fishing resort owners are determined to avoid a similar fate - and know they'll never again see the kind of fishing that built their town.

"The new generation doesn't know what they are missing," said Donalynn Olson of Olson's Resort. "There used to be king salmon that big right out there," she said spreading her arms wide. "You could go out there and get three of them anytime you want."

Her family built a thriving business on sport fishing, but Olson wonders if the resort will be passed on to the fourth generation. "You couldn't even give it away. We'll do in a season what we could get in a week. It makes you want to cry.

"It's hard to change," she said.

Gerry Scott is working on it.

His business, Curley's Resort, now offers dive gear, an espresso maker, ice cream, kites and outdoor barbecue in addition to fishing tackle.

"I'm putting in a hot tub next year."

For him the decline of the sport salmon fishery brought opportunity. "It's made us equals," he said of his competitors in town. "I figure, let's see what happens."

Some say they can't bring themselves to give up salmon fishing, even if they have to do it somewhere else.

Louis Miller, 73, first started trolling the coast of Washington for salmon in 1949. Last year he gave up his license in a buy-back program. Now his wooden troller, the Theron, is registered to fish for salmon in Oregon.

"It's a decision I had to make," Miller said.

"But I would prefer to fish in Washington. This is my home."

Lynda Mapes' phone message number is 206-464-2736. Her e-mail address is: lmapes@seattletimes.com