ASTORIA, Ore. (AP) -- In a fast-flowing spot just off Rice Island, fisherman Frank Tarabochia leans into the bow of his boat and tosses what might be the future of local commercial salmon fishing into the Columbia River.
The net stretches out behind the boat and Tarabochia, like generations of gillnetters before him, settles into the boat's cabin for a slug of coffee.
So far on this spring morning, the fishing has been slim -- a decent-sized chinook salmon and a dozen or so shad.
The yield isn't typical for Tarabochia, a seasoned commercial fisherman who started picking Columbia River salmon out of gillnets during the Eisenhower administration.
Fishing on the river isn't what it used to be. A hundred years ago, boats nudged gunnel to gunnel near the mouth of the Columbia to capture thousands of plump salmon headed for upriver spawning grounds.
Drastic declines later last century pushed 13 salmon and steelhead stocks into protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Paltry runs and federal restrictions have left the struggling local commercial salmon industry at a crossroads: adapt or continue to whither away.
The experimental net trailing behind Tarabochia's boat might help fishermen carve a new life into the once-legendary salmon fishery.
Over the last month, Tarabochia and fellow gillnetter Alan Takalo participated in an experiment with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to find out whether a new kind of fishing gear -- one that snags salmon by the mouth instead of the gills -- will allow fishermen to catch certain fish while letting others go.
Tarabochia, initially skeptical of the new gear, now says he thinks the new net might be the best shot at catching hatchery salmon and others while complying with federal restrictions to protect listed fish.
''I think this is what it's going to take if you want to fish with all these endangered fish.''
The idea behind tooth nets -- also called tangle nets -- is simple: catch salmon by the teeth or ridges around the mouth. Unlike gillnets, which snag salmon around the gills and bodies as they veer into the nets, tooth nets are meant to capture salmon and keep them alive longer in the water.
Paul Hirose, a biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, is leading the state's effort to find out whether the tooth nets will ensure that fishermen still catch as many fish as conventional nets while allowing protected fish to be tossed back with little or no harm.
There are still fish to be caught in the Columbia River, Hirose said, but it has to be done carefully.
''We want to accommodate what's out there,'' he said.
The work is part of ongoing research into ''selective fishing'' -- finding ways to fish for certain kinds of salmon while not damaging protected populations.
Although tooth net research in Oregon is fairly new, a commercial fisherman in Canada has been experimenting with it for years.
In 1996, Mark Petrunia, a gillnetter on Canada's Fraser River, decided to try to catch salmon with a smaller gillnet usually used for oolichan. He hoped the three-inch mesh would snag chum by their teeth or jaws and allow for live release of other fish like sockeye, coho, steelhead and sturgeon.
At the end of one experiment, Petrunia said he caught 592 coho salmon in the tooth net and was able to release 516 alive. Seventy were killed by seals and six died in the net.
Meanwhile, he caught more than 1,000 chum.
Hirose was hoping to see the same kind of success on the Columbia River.
ODFW hired Tarabochia and Takalo to give the tooth net a try and see how it compares to gillnet gear. Hanging like a long curtain in the water, the net used in the experiment is divided in two: one half with a conventional gillnet with 6 3/4 inch diamond holes and the tooth tangle net, with 3/12 inch gaps.
Tarabochia and Hirose are hoping that the tooth net catches at least as many spring chinook as the gillnet. But on this day, only a couple chinook crash into the net.
More than anything, Tarabochia ends up picking shad out of the tooth net. The non-native fish is the most abundant in the Columbia, but the limited West Coast market hardly makes it worth pulling them into the boat.
Nearly a dozen sturgeon also get caught up in the net. By the end of the day, only two salmon are pulled in -- one in the tooth net, the other in the gillnet.
Although it's an uncharacteristically slow day, it adds a few bits of information to the overall experiment.
Seven trips in May with the nets showed that the experimental gear caught about the same number of salmon as the gillnets.
In all, 19 live chinook and four dead ones are caught in the tooth net. The conventional net brought in 20 live chinook and three dead.
There isn't enough information to draw solid conclusions from the Columbia River experiments, but Hirose is happy with what he has seen.
''It's been very successful in showing what we wanted to show, basically the effectiveness of the gear,'' he said.
On the other side of the river, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is preparing similar tooth net experiments in August, one in Suquamish and another in Puyallup.
Tooth nets and selective fishing techniques, such as drifting trap nets, will give commercial fishermen more fish to catch and reduce the number of adult surplus fish at local hatcheries, said Geraldine Vander Haegen, a state biologist.
''This could be a good opportunity for commercial fishers to selectively take hatchery fish and release wild fish.''
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