SKAMOKAWA — When Marty Kuller was growing up in Seward, Alaska, commercial fishermen walked tall, and little boys like Kuller looked up to them.
“Growing up as a young man, the commercial fishermen were the pillars of the community. As a young man, that was my dream. You know how something like that can take hold in you,” Kuller, 50, said last week.
But these days, gillnetting no longer fills his heart with pride and excitement.
Kuller still gillnets on the Columbia River and purse-seines in Alaska, and he’s branched out into fish-buying, working with fellow Skamokawa gillnetter Kent Martin and others to deliver salmon to high-end specialty markets around the region.
But as the political controversy over gillnetting and the competition with sports fishermen have built to a climax, Kuller and other gillnetters on the Lower Columbia are losing faith that a new Columbia River fisheries plan will leave a place for them and their way of life.
In fact, Kuller has made the drastic decision to leave Wahkiakum County. Within the next few years, he will move himself, his wife, Vicki Sue, and daughter, Whitney, to a recently purchased property near Lake Havasu, Ariz., thousands of miles from the landscape and profession that have defined his life for the last 25 years.
Wednesday morning, he and Martin sat in Kuller’s Skamokowa nethouse, surrounded by decades’ worth of accumulated equipment, talking about what it feels like to be entangled in the current controversy over which nets — and which fishermen — will be allowed to catch salmon on the lower Columbia.
On Saturday, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission adopted a plan proposed by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber to phase out gillnet use on the main stem of the river and reallocate commercial gillnet use to off-channel hatchery sites.
The rules, which the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission approved on Dec. 7, also will force commercial fishermen to adopt alternative fishing gear, such as seine nets, which are currently illegal in Oregon. The measures are meant to reduce “bycatch” of endangered salmon stocks that mix with hatchery fish.
The plan also reallocates more fish to recreational fishermen, with some salmon species eventually being allocated at 80 percent for recreational and 20 percent for commercial.
Gillnetters have voiced impassioned objections to the plan and sued the Oregon Fish &Wildlife Commission, saying the new rules make it impossible for them to ply their trade in Oregon and Washington.
“We’re getting a raw deal. We’re getting forced out it. I’ve just had enough of it. I just can’t take it anymore. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m not even gonna live here anymore,” Kuller said.
Kuller and Martin say that when fishermen leave the region, they take more than money with them. Commercial fishing is part of the region’s cultural heritage, and even though overfishing decades ago contributed to declining runs, gillnetters also have been strong advocates for fish, insisting decades ago, for example, that Columbia River dams be equipped with fish ladders.
“If you lose the gillnetting, you’re gonna lose a way of life that’s been here longer than statehood,” Kuller said. “The fish are probably gonna be the big loser in all of this because the commercial fishermen have been friends of the fish since day one.”
The social fabric of coastal communities also suffers, as traditional industries are eliminated, Kent Martin said. When young people must migrate to the cities to find employment, community service groups and emergency services units that rely on volunteer labor are hit especially hard.
And research by his wife, historian and author Irene Martin, has shown that in Clatsop, Pacific, Grays Harbor and Wahkiakum counties, social problems like domestic violence, suicide and alcoholism are “through the roof, because you’ve lost so much of what your identity and your heritage is,” Martin said.
Unlike most gillnetters, Kuller didn’t come from a fishing family, but nearly all of his peers in Seward did.
As a boy, he was fascinated by the sight of the boats and equipment and the promise of adventure that commercial fishing held. Kuller, who says he’s “never held an hourly job,” began working on a boat in Seward at 14. For at least two decades, he never doubted his choice of livelihood.
“I don’t know what attracted me to it, but I know that once I got involved and bit, there was no ever going back to anything else,” Kuller said.
Kuller learned the way most fishermen do — by working in an informal apprenticeship for an older, more experienced fisherman. Kuller said he was lucky to have secured a position on such a boat. When he was a young man, his peers were raring to break into the commercial fishing industry, and opportunities were hard to find.
“Somebody had to die to get on that boat!” Kuller said. “If you didn’t want to do that, there was 10 other men that wanted that position.”
Kuller spent a decade learning the ropes from his mentor, Tom Nelson. He learned to find the fish. He learned to custom-build specialized equipment. He learned to make a living from the unpredictable runs — and to never assume that one good season would be followed by another. Finally, he was ready to strike out on his own.
“I started off with an old piece-of-junk boat. I would work on (repairing) it for three days, fish on it for one. I was barely making it, and surviving,” Kuller recalled.
Since his early teens, Kuller has lived his life according to a fish-based calendar. He began his year fishing spring chinook locally before flying to Alaska to seine for salmon in Kodiak. Then he’d move on to Naknek to gillnet for Bristol Bay sockeye until July. After winterizing his boats at Bristol Bay, a charter pilot nicknamed “Fast Eddie” would fly him back to Kodiak to seine for reds, pinks, and chum and coho until early September, when he would return to Washington to fish the Columbia for coho, then smelt. In the winter, he pursued sturgeon on the Columbia.
“It was never-ending,” Kuller recalled.
In 1985, Kuller moved to Wahkiakum County, where he married and became a father. Though he continued to fish much of the year — and made most of his money in Alaska — living in Washington offered respite from bitter winters and harsh fishing conditions.
Fishing the winter and fall seasons on the Columbia didn’t make anyone rich, but it allowed fishermen an opportunity to continue earning, Kuller said. If one of the other seasons had been especially poor, fishing the Columbia served as a sort of insurance against a bad year.
“We could be here all winter, scratching, making a living. It was all part of everything that added together,” Kuller said.
But these days, Kuller and Martin say that continuing to gillnet on the Columbia doesn’t add up. It’s no longer possible for fishermen to make a living without going out of state to fish, they say.
In recent years, Kuller tried to work with the state, participating in testing and research schemes and buying equipment that would allow him to switch to favored forms of fishing, such as seining, that experts believe will reduce impact on endangered salmon stocks.
“I invested a lot of money in that, thinking OK, now we’re actually going to be able to harvest some fish here,” Kuller said. But none of the fishermen have much enthusiasm for investing in new equipment and adopting new techniques.
Last year, the strain of ever-shorter seasons, political pressure and increasingly divisive relations among fishermen began to wear him down.
“My wife told me I had to quit fishing because it was going to kill me,” Kuller recalled, “I wasn’t very much fun to be around. I was miserable, and she could see it.”
He made the difficult decision to give up on the Columbia River.
“Why am I here? I’m upset with the policy. I’m upset with the whole thing. I am miserable because of what it has taken from me: My soul as a fisherman,” Kuller said.
After he moves to Havasu, he’ll still fish in Alaska, he said, because returning to the icy waters where he first learned the trade “still feels like going home.” Whitney, now 15, fishes in Alaska with him.
But slowly, he’s figuring out how to wrap up his life here: how to say goodbye, how help his family make the transition, and how to redeem his investments in thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment, his net house, his workshop and his two boats, all of which are losing value because the industry’s future is in doubt.
“Maybe I’ll be wrong but even if they do what they say, they’re never gonna let us catch enough fish to make any money,” Kuller said of the Kitzhaber plan.
“Instead of spending the next 25 years of my life being miserable and trying to do it, I just want out, even though I can’t sell any of it. I don’t know what I’m going to do with all of my equipment.”