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Fishermen worry about impact of dock damage on salmon season

ASTORIA, Ore. — Salmon caught in Youngs Bay in the spring are among the first fresh salmon of the year to land in front of Pacific Northwest consumers — and fetch a high price per pound for local fishermen.

But commercial gillnetters worry that a damaged gangway at one of the few remaining docks close to the fishing grounds could make for a chaotic — and less lucrative — season.

Otis Hunsinger, a gillnetter and crabber, is weighing his options. With the late start to the Dungeness crabbing season, he could continue crabbing, but the starting price per pound is low this year.

On the other hand, when salmon fishing starts up in Youngs Bay this spring, he likely won’t have a convenient place to tie up his boat. 

Winter storms battered the gangway and removed the only walk-on access to the docks and the net pens where Clatsop County rears juvenile salmon that are key to the local fishery’s continued existence.  The site, known by locals as “the old Yacht Club,” has long been a cost-effective moorage option for gillnetters.

In fact, it’s been free.

For gillnetters, who often work with minimal crew or alone, free is an excellent price. The use of gillnets has been controversial and in recent years the fishermen have faced greater restrictions on where they can fish. The old Yacht Club docks are right on the fishing grounds, saving gillnetters both precious time and expensive fuel. 

“If you’re trying to make money at it, a lot of people tend to fish there,” Hunsinger said. “That’s where the most deliveries are.”

Other moorage available at private property just upriver may not be available this year. Part of the property is in foreclosure and gillnetters who have tied up at docks there in the past say their lease agreements have not been renewed.

The county and Astoria are working together on a fix at the old Yacht Club docks. The county received an emergency grant from the state to help transfer incoming fish to the net pens, but repairs to the gangway are more uncertain. 

The county and city have submitted a request to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for $2 million in assistance to address the docks and pier. 

For now, Hunsinger and other fishermen expect to spend a lot of time this season planning their fishing life around the tides: towing boats back and forth on trailers for each set, launching at high tide and then having to wait until another high tide to bring their boat back in.

Some fishermen are considering mooring at the Port of Astoria’s West Mooring Basin off the Columbia River. But that’s just another cost.

“Right now, the way it sits … it’s kind of a disaster if they do nothing because we’re expecting a pretty good run,” said Randy Evans. He has fished in Youngs Bay and on the Columbia River for 30 years.

“A lot of guys come from different areas and they won’t have any place to tie up just like me,” he added. “It’s not good all around.” 

Hunsinger believes it will impact more people than just the fishermen. It will mean more trailer traffic on the roads and a crowded parking lot at the old Yacht Club. A daycare runs out of a building on the site. 

Steve Fick, owner of Fishhawk Fisheries in Astoria and a buyer of spring salmon, expects to have to come up with some workarounds to get the fish to his facility in a timely way. 

He might place a tender at the net pens to buy fish from gillnetters as they come in. This boat would then have to motor out of the bay and around to the Columbia River up to Fick’s processing plant.

“It’s just another added cost,” he said, “and sadly you know part of that’s going to have to be absorbed by the fishermen. We’ll absorb some and the consumer will absorb some.”