More strange boatfellows

Initiative 696, the “Ban All Nets” measure on next week’s state ballot, isn’t happening in a vacuum and doesn’t just mark a fight between local sports fishermen (pushing 696) and commercial fishermen (fighting it) over who gets the last fish. It is the latest, and the most draconian, eruption of a no-nets (or, in most states, no gillnets) movement that’s raged along the Pacific, Great Lakes, and Gulf coasts.

I-696’s boosters claim they’re trying to do here what’s worked so well in 14 other states. “The results have been fantastic,” ex-state fisheries director Bern Shanks declared in a News Tribune op-ed (10/10), which ex-Seattle mayor Wes Uhlman echoed in last Sunday’s P-I Focus. Shanks recounted how seven years after “[California] voters approved a net ban,” the Sacramento River’s chinook run grew 300 percent, to its highest level since 1953, and statewide salmon returns climbed 280 percent. Ergo, “Washingtonians could expect to see significantly larger salmon runs in just a few years.”

But California’s ban was much more limited than 696 and had nothing to do with salmon recovery. It applied only to the gillnets that were overfishing rockfish 200 and more miles south of the Sacramento’s mouth. The Sacramento run rebounded after water managers restored stream flows. Other California salmon runs are still hurting, as are the newly protected rockfish, although the net ban, coupled with hatcheries, may have helped striped bass bounce back.

Likewise in Texas, where the net-ban movement began. In the 1970s, sports fishers formed the Gulf Coast Conservation Alliance (recently renamed Coastal Conservation Alliance, suggesting wider ambitions). It persuaded Texas legislators and Louisiana voters to ban commercial netting of redfish (stocks of which had been ravaged by the “blackened redfish” culinary fad). Redfish returns and recreational catches have since soared—thanks also, once again, to an extensive hatchery program.

And that points up the curious connections between the Gulf’s no-net movement and the oil and chemical industries, perennial adversaries of the fishing industry. Exxon Chemical funded the Coastal Alliance’s fish-tagging program. Dow North America gave it 75 acres for an aquarium and hatchery complex. Central Power and Light gave 39 acres for a hatchery expansion.

Best and highest use

Commercial fishing’s beleaguered defenders, Gulf-side and here, howl that it’s unfair to paint them as “business” interests when the sports fishers have such corporate support. On the flip side, some sports advocates argue that since sports fishing is a much bigger, more lucrative industry, it’s crazy to consign scarce fish to marginal commercial fisheries. One of the 696 campaigns biggest donors happens to be a Dallas investment broker named Ralph Purvis, who gave $2,000. Purvis says he has nothing to do with the Coastal Alliance or Gulf fish wars. Rather, he grew up on Hood Canal, still loves to fish here, and hates to see prime salmon sold for a couple bucks: “To me, that’s the most insane thing in the world. Guys like me go all over the world and pay four, five thousand dollars to fish and not keep the fish.” Why not bring that kind of money into the local economy? he asks. Of course, such remarks help the commercial fishers present themselves as working-class heroes and defenders of everyone’s right to a fish fry.

Serious business

The last anti-nets initiative, 1995’s I-640, also got big bucks from big business: $70,000 from the Columbia River Alliance, which represents power companies, irrigators, aluminum refiners, barge operators, and others with a huge interest in not tearing down dams to save salmon. The CRA continues to plump for 696: “If you want to save salmon,” its e-newsletter urges, “the most important action you can do TODAY is send $5, 10, 50, or 100 to the YES on 696 Campaign.” But the Alliance hasn’t sent any money itself. I-696 opponents warn darkly that it’s just waiting till the last minute so its donations won’t show on disclosure forms. No way, says CRA director Bruce Lovelin: “That’s just hype to scare the voters.” First, his members fumed at blowing so much money only to see 640 get creamed. And second, anything they give would, once again, be a PR kiss of death.

Commercial fishing interests (Alaska and national, as well as local) would still vastly outspend initiative backers anyway, as they did in 1995. Among those giving this year to sink 696: Trident Seafoods ($25,000), the Purse Seine Vessel Owners Association ($25,000), the Virginia-based National Fisheries Institute ($20,000), the Pacific Seafood Processors Association ($10,000), and Bristol Bay Reserve ($10,000).

My bait is better than your bait

Tribal nets and reef nets aren’t the only nets this “Ban All Nets” initiative wouldn’t ban. It specifically exempts lampara and dip-netting for herring—even though Puget Sound herring, a key link in the marine food chain, is severely depleted and an endangered species candidate. It would, however, forbid netting other baitfish, such as anchovies—which aren’t in trouble. Why the special treatment? I-696 supporter Jim Tuggle says he assumes it’s because herring dipping doesn’t entail any bycatch. Or perhaps it’s because sports fishers use herring for bait, while commercial trollers use anchovies. This loophole undercuts the anglers’ claims that they’re fighting to save fish, not grab them for themselves.

All this and tropical reefs!

Another thing Initiative 696 won’t do is protect giant clams and sea urchins in the Philippines, or sharks, groupers, lobsters, and wrasses on tropical reefs. So who says it would? These “threats to reefs” are among the ills 696 proponents cite, and apparently propose to correct, on their Web site ( If they promised to bring back the dodo and giant auk, they’d have my vote.

But unfair, overbroad, and oversold as it is, I-696 is still a tough call. The best argument for it comes from the conservation group Washington Trout, which has bucked environmental correctness and supported 696: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”— at least it would reduce overfishing and start to force the harvest reforms that state managers refuse to make. But sometimes the best argument isn’t good enough.

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