August 2, 2008

Salmon Fishermen Find Slime, Not Sockeye

BELLINGHAM, Wash. _ A strange brown slime attributed to some kind of plankton bloom is coating nets on fishing grounds in the Strait of Georgia, making it nearly impossible for many local fishermen to get their share of this year's Fraser River sockeye salmon run in Washington state.

Gill net fishermen catch their quarry in long, floating curtains of monofilament that don't work if migrating fish can see them. If the brown stuff doesn't clear out in the weeks ahead, other salmon fisheries may also be affected.

Fishermen expect a certain amount of debris to accumulate on their nets, but this year is different. Fishers who set their nets during the opening that ended July 31 had little to show for their efforts, and there are no assurances that the international commission regulating the Fraser harvest will grant any more openings on this year's weak run.

"I've fished sockeye all my life," said Merle Jefferson, 58, Lummi Nation's director of natural resources. "This is the worst I've ever seen it. ... We cannot catch the fish because the nets are all fouled up."

Bellingham gill netter Charles Brandt agreed.

"Your net just comes in solid brown," Brandt said. "It's real sludgy. You can't catch a fish with that stuff. It's the worst I've seen it since 1973."

The Lummi fishers reported the problem in their favorite waters off Point Roberts. Brandt said he's heard reports of the brown slime as far south as Salmon Bank, just south of San Juan Island.

Art Lane, a Lummi fisherman who sets his net out from a small skiff, said the brown coating made his net so heavy it was hard to pull it out of the water and get it back into the boat.

"A lot of skiffs were darn near sinking because of the weight," Lane said.

Gordon Wilson Sr., another Lummi gill netter, said his hydraulic drum wasn't powerful enough to pull his slime-laden 1,500-foot net more than halfway back into the boat. He and deckhand Michael Peters had to pull it in by hand, and the net held no salmon.

"We got three dogfish, and that was it," Wilson said, adding, "It took us two days to clean our net."

The Fraser River sockeye harvest has long been the most profitable for local fishers, and it is especially important to more than 200 tribal fishers who generally don't fish in Alaska. Even though this year's fishing was expected to be meager, tribal fishermen were counting on it after last year's fiasco, when a reduced sockeye run prevented any commercial catch.

"We waited all year for these days to be open," Lane said.

"We've been getting ready for two months," Peters added. "To go through that is pretty sad."

There was no immediate information on what kind of organism is causing the problem. Jefferson said it is likely due to this year's unusual weather, with late, heavy snowfall in the mountains feeding a steady runoff into local rivers, pumping nutrients into the sea.

Jefferson suggested that the stuff could be heterosigma, a type of brown algae that can kill fish, especially those confined in net pens at salmon farms. During outbreaks in past years, heterosigma has been blamed for the loss of millions of dollars' worth of fish in the region's salmon farms.

But Rose Ann Cattolico, a heterosigma expert at the University of Washington, said the phenomenon fishermen were describing sounded more like a diatom bloom, since diatoms are more prone to stick to nets.

Kevin Bright, marine biologist at American Gold Seafoods in Anacortes, agreed.

"That stuff (diatoms) blooms and decomposes and floats up to the surface," Bright said.

American Gold owns the net pens off Cypress Island in the San Juans, and Bright keeps a close eye on potentially harmful blooms of microorganisms. Diatom blooms are not known to harm fish, and he has not found heterosigma problems this year.

"Our farms here at Cypress really aren't seeing anything," Bright said.


(c) 2008, The Bellingham Herald, Wash.

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