U.S. sturgeon fishermen see livelihood dwindle Prices soar on fish, but population declines sharply

March 16, 1996|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN STAFF

CLIFTON, Ore. - With a cold Pacific rain slashing down on the mud-brown Columbia River, a gasping sturgeon thunked on to the deck of the Andy Jay. There it was muscled into place by Jack Marincovich, one of the last holdouts in this, the last commercial fishery for sturgeon in America.

Mr. Marincovich, 63, has spent his life as a gill-netter on the Columbia River, but today he and his fellow fishermen are little more than the remnants of a once-thriving culture, now dogged by gloom.

The collapse of the Soviet Union has put new pressure on wild sturgeon. Stocks in the Caspian Sea are being ruinously overfished.

The market is driving prices up worldwide. There is high demand for sturgeon meat among Russians (and many others) but real riches lie in the sturgeon's eggs, the roe from which black caviar is made. It is one of the world's great delicacies and sells for as much as $400 a pound, retail. One large female fish can provide up to 100 pounds of caviar.

It is no surprise, then, that Russia and China are feverishly looking for new resources to exploit. But it's already too late for the fishermen here on the Columbia.

The slightest attempt to re-create a thriving fishery here would spell a quick end to sturgeon in Oregon, as New York fisheries officials discovered last year when Hudson River stocks crashed.

A snouty and spiny bottom-feeding fish that's made of little more than muscle and cartilage, sturgeon can live to be 100 and grow up to 20 feet long. They live today pretty much as they did when they appeared a hundred million years before the dinosaurs.

Although they are hearty, sturgeon in the wild are vulnerable to overfishing. They are easy to net and take decades to reproduce. Females don't spawn until they're 20 years old, and may only spawn every fifth year.

Huge populations of sturgeon were nearly wiped out a century ago in the Columbia and Hudson rivers. On the Sacramento River, the Delaware, and Chesapeake Bay, the story was the same.

Two small sturgeon have been caught in the Chesapeake this year and that's been news because they have been so rare.

Short fishing season

The spring fishing season on the Columbia can barely be called a season at all it consists of just three days, in February.

That sturgeon have survived here is because of stricter state regulations that have made fishing for them barely worth the cost of the license and the gasoline needed to go out and get them.

In fact, a modest comeback is under way but the way of life they once helped to support is clearly on the way out.

As the season began, a wet morning found Jack Marincovich pushing back from the kitchen table of his father's little wooden riverside house, casting an eye on the flood-swollen river, and heading out to the dock in Clifton.

Mr. Marincovich, a pessimist by nature, is rarely proved wrong.

He believes that the century-old legacy of commercial fishermen on the Columbia, started by men like his grandfather Anton, who learned fishing on the Adriatic coast of Croatia in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, ends with him. Like the Chesapeake oyster dredgers, the Columbia gill-netters are running out of anything to harvest.

Mr. Marincovich fussed with the engine of the Andy Jay, a 28-foot bow-reel boat, and finally headed out into the river.

Fishermen dwindle

There was a time when 30 or 40 fishermen worked out of Clifton, about 30 miles upriver from Astoria, where the Columbia meets the Pacific. There were 200 days of fishing a year.

Today five men fish out of Clifton, and none of them lives here.

The tide was slack, just starting to ebb. As usual, Mr. Marincovich worked a stretch of the river just off Clifton. On the Columbia River, the idea always was that you don't chase the fish; you let the fish come to you. For a hundred years fishermen organized themselves into cooperative "drift associations," and they kept to the same proprietary stretch of river. This was a system that required just one assumption to work well the assumption, that is, that there would be fish.

Mr. Marincovich set out his 1,200-foot gill net, a "diver" that rises up 14 feet from the river bottom. The net has an 8-inch mesh, designed to catch fish of a certain size by their fins or gills. Smaller fish swim through. Bigger fish don't get caught.

The Oregon rain was washing down in great bursts, obscuring the mountains that tumble down to the river's banks. The water was the color of coffee with milk, and just as opaque, laden with logs.

He left the net in the water about half an hour, as both boat and net drifted with the current.

Heyday in the 1800s

The rain threw up a mist over the virtually deserted river. A century earlier, the scene could hardly have been more different.

Thousands of boats worked the river. The Columbia teemed with sturgeon 15- or 20-footers. Anton Marincovich and his fellow fishermen pulled as much as 6 million pounds of sturgeon out of the river every year during the 1880s.

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