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Wheat Meets Wet 

by KEVIN TAYLOR & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he sun is just slipping past its meridian on the first Monday in August, signaling the tide is soon to turn and it's harvest time for Bryan Jones. Leaning against a pickup truck, the tall fourth-generation wheat farmer from Dusty, Wash., steps carefully into rubbery bib overalls, waterproof boots and a yellow rain jacket. A sun-washed ball cap shades his bearded face.





This particular afternoon, Jones will not be driving a combine through the storied amber waves of wheat that cover much of the rolling Palouse in southeastern Washington. He finds himself instead on Lummi Island in the far northwest corner of the state, where the harvest is going to be muscled silver rockets from the sea -- wild sockeye salmon intercepted as they sprint back to their spawning grounds in the Fraser River of British Columbia.





Jones and other visitors from the dry side of the state, similarly clad in rain gear, walk down a beach crunchy with shells and board a steep-sided skiff, the workhorse of commercial fishing. They are then taken to offshore salmon fishing stations, known as reef-nets, unique to Lummi and Lopez islands in the San Juans.





To locals, these reef-netting stations are simply "gear." The single word encompasses a salmon fishing method that's been part of Lummi Island culture as long as anyone can remember and is thought to go back thousands of years.





To visitors, the seemingly unwieldy vessels more resemble a backdrop to a Mad Max or Waterworld movie -- no two gear are exactly alike, all appear home-built or jury-rigged. Each is at the center of an intricate webbing of lines, ribbons, buoys and cables. The gear are draped with nets and loaded with car batteries, homemade winches and scavenged electric motors. Watchtowers rise 20 feet above barge-like decks, bobbing in the chop of the changing tide, and dreadlocked deckhands in a paisley of mismatched rain gear silently watch the approach of the skiff.





Seven gear are lined up close inshore, two are anchored farther out in rougher water. One of these flies a Jolly Roger that reads, "The beatings shall continue until morale improves."





This is where the skiff is taking Jones.





Despite the August sun, there is a chill on the water.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he crew aboard this particular gear hangs back as the burly skipper pushes to the edge of the deck planking and, eyes hidden behind sunglasses, leans against a winch housing to size up the newcomers as the skiff bumps alongside.





In an instant, though, there is a delighted smile.





"Bryan? Bryan with a Y? Well come on board!" exclaims fisherman Bryan Martens to farmer Bryan Jones.





The trip to Lummi Island is designed for such a moment.





The Spokane arm of the nonprofit group Save Our Wild Salmon has for several years been trying to build a relationship between southeast Washington wheat farmers at the upper end of the Snake and Columbia river systems and the commercial fishers far downstream. SOS, as it's known in shorthand, sees farmers and fishers as each holding an end of the wild salmon runs and that by acting in concert they may stave off extinction of the fish so central to Pacific Northwest identity.





Dams play a large role in limiting wild salmon runs, with the four most recently constructed federal dams -- the four on the lower Snake River from Tri-Cities to Lewiston -- being especially targeted by salmon advocates for removal.





Jones finds himself sharing the almost comical paradigm of farmers plugged into the soft white winter wheat commodity market. The grain grown by Jones and his neighbors rides downriver in barges that go through shipping locks at the four Snake River dams. Meanwhile, outbound salmon smolts are borne to the sea in tanker trucks running alongside the river on highways.





"We spend $880 million a year to keep it looking like it works," Jones says of increasingly complicated federally funded salmon restoration efforts along the Snake and Columbia. "And we are willing to put one group of people -- commercial fishermen -- out of business on the coast."





Jones is the rare farmer willing to discuss alternatives to barging. He has lobbied congressional delegations in tandem with commercial fishers to consider breaching the Snake River dams to preserve wild salmon runs.





"I do have neighbors who say, 'Truthfully, Bryan, I agree with you 100 percent, but don't let anybody hear that.' I think there is so much misinformation -- for instance, that the fishermen are taking all the fish -- stuff you just want to believe," Jones says. "Or that the lower Snake dams power all of Seattle. Yeah, right."





Jones says farmers fear any changes to the status quo, worried that they may lose money or go out of business.





It's the same thing in his industry, says Riley Starks, a lifelong commercial fisherman who helped coordinate the no-expenses-paid visit to Lummi Island.





"I see this as part of understanding," Starks says. "Bryan says the more you talk to people, the more you realize they are more like you. I can see the Eastern Washington component to Bryan, the difficulty he probably has being as progressive as he is.





"I'm in the same situation here in my community," Starks continues.





Upriver, as salmon decline, people realize dams may be part of the problem, but little is done about them when it comes to solutions. Downriver, and offshore, commercial fishing practices are also part of the problem and here it can be hard to make changes, even as salmon keep disappearing.





"There is a cannery mentality," Starks says, "and that is 'I like things just the way they are ... even though there might be better ways of doing things.'"





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & R & lt;/span & eef-netting, Starks says, is a better way of doing things. It's incredibly selective, being able to pull the net on only the fish you want. It's considered among the very best practices for sustainable fisheries, and it's intensely local -- fish delivered on ice almost instantly to buyers onshore.





Starks, who frequently has an impish air, is doubly a rebel then. Not only has he joined the small brotherhood of reef-netters -- there are only 11 in the world -- he has recently installed a solar panel on his gear to power the batteries that run the winches. This makes him the only solar-powered reef-netter on the planet.





And that came with some pushback. "We got a little (industry) press when we went solar and there were comments like, 'Oh my God, that's a lot of windage,' because it's like a big sail up there, which has not been a problem," Starks says. "Or the salt is going to corrode it, which has not happened, or seagulls are going to crap all over it, which hasn't happened either."





Instead of fearing change, he says, Stark has embraced it and finds the experience has been successful. Starks says reef-netters have gone from 5 percent of the non-treaty commercial fleet's catch to as much as 20 percent and are getting premium prices for what the reef-net co-operative strongly markets as a premium product to buyers like Anthony's restaurants.





Others, such as Bryan Martens and Ed Barleans, have been pushing this particular type of fishing in the political arena. Martens says he's arranging for Rep. Norm Dicks (D-WA) to visit his gear during this month's congressional recess.





Charmane Ashbrook, a selective fisheries research biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, says she's writing a grant to seek funding to test reef-netting in places like Willapa Bay, Grays Harbor, Hood Canal and the lower Columbia.





"We are really excited about reef-net fisheries," Ashbrook says.





And reef-net fishing is a strange blend of the mellow and the intense.





A reef-net gear is two vessels anchored side-by-side with enormous concrete blocks weighing tens of tons. A complicated underwater web of lines and ribbons mimics a natural offshore reef and guides the returning salmon into a net slung between the two vessels.





Instead of chasing salmon all over the sea in a boat, reef-netters, over time, have pegged the precise locations where salmon flow like a silver river on their way home. The Fraser River wild sockeye, for example, may shoot down the Pacific Ocean as far south as Cape Flattery before turning inland. They swing around the bottom of Orcas Island and come charging towards Lummi, whose crescent-shaped western side steers them northeast towards the mouth of the Fraser.





Fishermen like Bryan Martens peer down from the 20-foot-tall watchtowers and can tell sockeye from king from dog salmon running through the gear. The crew sits on lawn chairs, reading or talking with visitors until the cry comes from above, "Go like hell!" The winches come to life with a whump to raise the net, and the deckhands, known as bleeders, begin hauling as fast as they can, funneling the fish toward a live well. Anywhere from one to dozens of sockeye are lifted from the water in roughly one minute. Flounder or other fish are shaken back into the sea.





Early this month the nets frequently pulled up Lion's Mane jellyfish with the sockeye. The jellies appeared as blobs that had been colored by a red-violet crayon. In one haul, three fine sockeye tumbled down the net, landing atop a jelly that was bigger than a basketball. The way the sockeye arced and stiffened and shuddered gave visual warning to the potency of the jellyfish that was headed towards the deckhands.





Bleeder Calvin Cardwell had pulled on a pair of gloves when he saw the jellyfish and separated it from the salmon with no trouble.





Crewmate Paul Goodmanson asks, "Were you the one who got it up your nose last year?"





"Man," Cardwell replies. "I breathed in and had a tentacle go right up my nose! I dipped my head in the water and (blowing through his nostrils). Aaaarrrgh, it hurt."





The flood tide sluiced past green and strong. The sun tilted ever westward. The silver missiles that are wild sockeye arced and tumbled in the net.





Jones, the farmer in raingear, observes: "The only thing exciting about wheat is if there is somebody naked running through it."





Soon enough, the tide turns and the visitors head back to sun-browned Eastern Washington.





"This was a good introduction," Jones says, adding later, "We are having a dialogue, and this dialogue could go on the next 10 years [but] hopefully we will build a case for viable reasons to remove the dams."





There was a glimmer -- much like the glimmer of a fast moving fish in the depths -- that a tide may be turning in the deep waters of salmon politics, too.





[email protected]

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