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Are gill nets decimating Klamath and Trinity salmon runs?

By Dylan Darling. Redding Record Searchlight November 8, 2009

Are gill nets decimating Klamath and Trinity salmon runs? Photo by Andreas Fuhrmann   Leonard “Spam” Ferris fishes for salmon with gill nets near the Tish Tang campground in Hoopa on Tuesday. He said his family has been fishing in the same spots on the Trinity River for generations and that the fish are fewer and come up the river later in the year than when he was a child fishing with his grandfather.

Leonard "Spam" Ferris has stretched a gill net into the waters of the Trinity River near his home on the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation for about 50 years.

After starting as his grandpa's helper when he was 7 years old, Ferris, now 57, says he catches as many as 700 salmon a year using gill nets. So far this year, he's caught 400 and expects to keep filling his smokehouse.

"It's a late run so they are still coming," he said.

While Ferris, a member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, said he hasn't seen more gill nets this year along the river through the reservation than in a typical year, upstream salmon guides charge that an increase in tribal gill nets is decimating the fish's fall run.

"We are just not seeing the fish we should be seeing," said Steve Huber, 43, a fishing guide in Weaverville.

A salmon is caught in Leonard  Spam  Ferris  gill net near the Tish Tang campground on the Trinity River in Hoopa on Tuesday. On this morning, he caught two fish. He sets his nets in the early evening and pulls them in the morning. Photo by Andreas Fuhrmann  A salmon is caught in Leonard “Spam” Ferris’ gill net near the Tish Tang campground on the Trinity River in Hoopa on Tuesday. On this morning, he caught two fish. He sets his nets in the early evening and pulls them in the morning.

While the two tribes on the lower stretches of the rivers - the Yurok and the Hoopa Valley tribes - report that they've hauled in almost 28,000 fish, close to this year's allotment, Huber and other guides said very few salmon are making it past the tribal waters and into areas where they can catch them.

The angry anglers are airing their concerns on the Internet.

Mike Aughney, 48, of Petaluma, who started www.usafishing.com in 1995, has launched an Internet campaign against gill netting on the Trinity, warning that tribal nets, particularly those on the Hoopa Reservation, are wiping out the Trinity River run.

"Because of the gill nets, we are seeing almost no return," said Aughney, who says he's fished in the north state for 40 years.

Allie Hostler, the Hoopa Valley Tribe's spokeswoman, said her tribe aims to protect the fish on the Trinity and American Indian gill netters are unfairly targeted.

"I feel like this is a witch hunt to blame the (Hoopa Valley Tribe) for something," she said.

Tightening tension

Leonard  Spam  Ferris fishes for salmon with gill nets near the Tish Tang campground on the Trinity River in Hoopa. Ferris said he makes his own nets. He said low water means fewer fish.  We hope for a big snow in the winter so we get our water from the tributaries below the dam,  Ferris said.Photo by Andreas Fuhrmann  Leonard “Spam” Ferris fishes for salmon with gill nets near the Tish Tang campground on the Trinity River in Hoopa. Ferris said he makes his own nets. He said low water means fewer fish. “We hope for a big snow in the winter so we get our water from the tributaries below the dam,” Ferris said.

To fuel his online argument, Aughney points to low numbers reported by state scientists at a weir - a submerged fence used to collect migrating salmon - near Willow Creek. The data shows nine salmon the week of Oct. 22 and 16 salmon the week of Oct. 29. The guides and anglers say the counts should be in the hundreds.

But Wade Sinnen, the associate fishery biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game in Arcata in charge of the project, said the numbers don't mean that there is a problem with the fish population.

"It is not a crash situation," he said. "... there has been misinterpretation of that data."

While there are weirs that channel fish so they'll pass by video cameras or other tools to create a count, the Willow Creek weir corrals salmon into a trap where they are marked by scientists, Sinnen said. The percentage of marked fish that then show up at the Trinity River Hatchery in Lewiston is part of the formula used to create a population estimate.

Data collected on the runs since 1977 show the numbers can vary widely, he said. The hatchery returns range from a low of 1,551 in 1993 to a high of 30,386 in 2003, Sinnen said. The natural returns range from 5,249 in 1991 to 113,007 in 1986.

He said it is too early to tell what this year's total run will be, but all indications so far are that it won't be a large one.

"The bottom line is the Trinity River is going to have an OK run," Sinnen said, "but not a real robust one."

Aughney said he thinks tribal members are using more gill nets as a result of the ongoing ban of commercial salmon fishing on the California coast. As the commercial salmon supply available drops, prices have shot up.

Salmon dries in a smokehouse at Leonard  Spam  Ferris  father s house in Hoopa. The Photo by Andreas Fuhrmann  Salmon dries in a smokehouse at Leonard “Spam” Ferris’ father’s house in Hoopa. The house has been in his family for generations.

He said 20,000 pounds of salmon - about 2,000 fish worth $60,000 - from the Trinity caught by members of the Hoopa Valley Tribe ended up for sale at the San Francisco fish market and he questioned whether that was legal.

Dan Torquemada, assistant special agent in charge of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Office for Law Enforcement in Santa Rosa, said he received an anonymous tip about the salmon, but no laws were broken by tribal members. He said the tribe is allowed to sell some of the fish caught along the Trinity River.

"Currently, we have no evidence that the Hoopa fishermen are using their nets in an illegal manner," he said. "They are operating under the direction of the Hoopa tribal authorities."

The Hoopa and Yurok tribes work with the Pacific Fishery Management Council, a federal entity regulating sport and commercial fishing on the West Coast, to set salmon catch allotments for the river and the ocean, said Chuck Tracy, salmon staff officer for the council.

This year's allotment is 30,900 fish each for non-American Indian anglers and the American Indian fishery on the Klamath and Trinity rivers.

Huber said sport anglers will be lucky to catch 4,500 on the rivers - about 15 percent of their allotment - because of a diminished Trinity run.

Gill netting has long been controversial in Northern California, especially along the lower Klamath River, said Tracy, salmon staff officer for the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

"It's a pretty consistent fishery," he said. "It's pretty intense."

Tribal tradition

The state outlaws gill nets on rivers, but they are allowed on waters running through the Yurok and Hoopa Valley reservations that are governed by the separate tribes.

Flanking 44 river miles from the mouth of the Klamath at the Pacific Ocean to the river's confluence with the Trinity River, the Yurok Reservation is centered on the river. Just upstream from the Yurok Reservation, the Hoopa Valley Reservation is a 12-mile-by-12-mile square - 144 square miles in all. It is similarly river-driven.

Gill nets allow a salmon to swim partway through their mesh. Cinching around the fish's body, the nets trigger a salmon's instinct to swim backward when they encounter an obstacle. When they do that, they become ensnared in the net by their gills.

The technique is a traditional one, used for centuries by American Indians along the rivers, said Hostler, the spokeswoman for the Hoopa Valley Tribe.

"We used to make them out of iris twine," she said.

Today, the nets are made of thick, braided synthetic fishing line and held afloat by plastic foam. Hostler said the nets in the river on the reservation are usually 50- or 100-feet wide and tribal laws restrict them from covering more than a third of the river.

Tradition dictates placement of the nets, said Hoopa gill netter Ferris - whose uncle jokingly said he felt like a can of Spam when he was a newborn baby, giving him a nickname that stuck.

"Everyone knows your spot and protects your spot," Ferris said.

He said today he takes his grandchildren fishing and the fish they catch go to his large family and elders in the tribe.

Hostler said tribal fishery officials and law enforcement officers also police the river, making sure those using gill nets are following tribal laws.

Leaders from the two tribes meet each year to set a division of the tribal allotment. This split is 80 percent to the Yurok and 20 percent Hoopa, reflecting the larger size of the Yurok tribe, Hostler said. The Yurok have 5,500 members and the Hoopa 2,500 members.

This year, the members of the Hoopa Valley Tribe have caught about 4,000 fish of their 6,128 allotment, said Mike Orcutt, who heads the Hoopa Valley Tribal Fisheries Department.

The Yurok have caught 24,000 salmon, only 720 fish short of this year's allotment, said Troy Fletcher, a policy analyst for the tribe.

"We are pretty close to the end of the season," Fletcher said.

Upriver on the Hoopa Valley Tribe Reservation, the run continues.

Orcutt said on a busy day there are as many as 50 gill nets in the water on the reservation, but he said there hasn't been an increase in the number of nets this year.

He said he has seen reports on angling Web sites questioning whether the tribe is exceeding its allotment this year.

"Our answer is we are in our harvest objectives; we haven't gone over our harvest objectives," Orcutt said.

Racial divide

The issue boils down to a racial divide, said Fletcher, the Yurok official.

"There has always been a tension over the tribal fishery," he said.

Fletcher said the Yurok Tribe has the most monitoring and law enforcement on the river, but nontribal members don't trust the American Indian because there is no state or federal oversight.

However, he insists the tribe is focused on protecting the salmon and improving its stocks on the Klamath, of which the Trinity is a tributary.

"That is our river," Fletcher said. "Those are our fish. And we manage those fish in a responsible way."

Aughney said he plans to continue his online criticism and his concerns are not motivated by race, but by the type of fishing he said he sees crippling the salmon run.

"I am not an Indian hater," he said. "I hate gill nets."

Reporter Dylan Darling can be reached at 225-8266 or ddarling@redding.com.

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