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Took a fish wheel out to see a movie / Didn't have to pay to get it in
June 28, 2011 1:34 PM   Subscribe

Right around 1879, the fishwheel (historical images, McCord replica) came to the Columbia River. A clever application of mill-like thinking to traditional net fishing techniques, the fishwheel's river-powered automation of upstream harvesting revolutionized canning in Oregon and Washington, drawing both commercial attention and critical concern [NYT 1881, PDF]. Two men, Thornton Williams and William Rankin McCord, each filed patents for fishwheel designs in 1881 (#245251) and 1882 (#257960) respectively; Williams brought an infringement suit against McCord which was dismissed on the grounds that the invention was not new, being based directly on the publicly documented work of one Samuel Wilson in 1879. Fishwheels were fair game.

By 1908, with tensions running high between the high-yield upriver fishwheel operators such as Seufert Brothers Cannery and the larger cohort of downriver gillnet operators, the gillnetters successfully put an initiative on the Oregon ballot to effectively ban fishwheels on the Columbia; the fishwheelers responded by putting their own bill, designed to prohibit gillnet operation, onto the ballot as well.

Both measures passed, throwing the local fishing industry temporarily into disarray; enforcement of the law was impractical and made more complicated by issues of jurisdiction between Oregon and Washington fisherman on the same river. A federal injunction put the laws out of action, and fishing operation resumed, but as a result of the confusion the Columbia River Compact was established in 1918 to formally address river rights issues between the two states.

In 1926, with the Columbia's fish population already grossly reduced by decades of aggressive commercial fishing, a Oregon voters approved the latest proposed ban of fishwheels on the river. Washington followed suit in 1934). Frank Seufert reportedly responded to the Oregon ban in 1927 by painting the roof of a barn near his cannery with a complaint:

"TO BUILD THIS BUSINESS IT TOOK 47 YEARS. THE INITIATIVE LAW OF OREGON DESTROYED IT IN ONE DAY"
posted by cortex (15 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 


This video, from the Yukon, shows a lot of fish being pulled in. Nasty fights in the comments about it, too.
posted by R. Mutt at 1:50 PM on June 28, 2011 [5 favorites]


The fish wheels probably aren't the worst thing we did to the salmon, but they definitely rank on the list of bad things. Ingenious, but horrid.
posted by Forktine at 2:04 PM on June 28, 2011


Fish wheels, and the chunk they took out of salmon populations by outside interests (PDF), were a major incentive in Alaska seeking statehood. After statehood was granted, Alaska banned fish wheels outside of subsistence harvest.
posted by Foam Pants at 2:23 PM on June 28, 2011


"TO STOCK THIS RIVER WITH FISH TOOK NATURE EONS. BUSINESS DESTROYED IT IN 47 YEARS."
posted by twjordan at 2:49 PM on June 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


Just here for the UHF jokes, glad to see I wasn't disappointed.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 3:55 PM on June 28, 2011


So is it just me, or does the argument in the "critical concern" link not make any sense? It claims that fishwheels take juvenile salmon, which would result in reduced future harvests. But the fishwheels are only taking salmon migrating upriver. These are, by definition, adult salmon which would never have grown any bigger than they are now. Right? So either they were tossing small adult salmon, or the author was mistaking other small fish for juvenile salmon. If I am wrong, would someone explain why?
Of course this is not to say fishwheels were a sustainable method of harvest. It is entirely possible (as we have proved) to reduce yields just by taking adults, and leaving the juveniles be. But it seems like this particular complaint was wrong.
posted by agentofselection at 4:50 PM on June 28, 2011


Wouldn't catching the salmon swimming upstream mean you're taking them out of commission before they've spawned?
posted by ardgedee at 4:57 PM on June 28, 2011


A fish needs a wheel like a fish needs an unicycle.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 4:57 PM on June 28, 2011


Who knew so many other Mefites had fish wheel links teed up to add to this post?
posted by Aizkolari at 4:58 PM on June 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wouldn't catching the salmon swimming upstream mean you're taking them out of commission before they've spawned?
Yes, it does, but that isn't a strike against this method compared to other salmon fishing methods. Salmon fishing has traditionally all been done as they come up the river, before they spawn. That's when they're easy to catch. After they spawn, they die, and who wants to eat a dead fish?
posted by agentofselection at 5:06 PM on June 28, 2011


Here's a nice bunch of old fishwheel photos that I totally missed somehow this morning, from the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center.

Some notable stuff from that set and elsewhere in their collection:

- Fishwheel and Beacon Rock
- Thornton (or Thorton? spellings vary) Williams fishwheel
- William Rankin McCord
- Frank Seufert

and man I wish I'd found this earlier:

- Frank Seufert's "47 YEARS...ONE DAY" protest barn

It claims that fishwheels take juvenile salmon, which would result in reduced future harvests. But the fishwheels are only taking salmon migrating upriver. These are, by definition, adult salmon which would never have grown any bigger than they are now. Right?

Your puzzlement makes sense to me, yeah. That said, I don't know what the minute-to-minute behavior of smolts headed downstream is like—if it's more of a two steps forward, one step back dynamic where they make their way to sea in fits and starts while also dashing upstream a bit, it wouldn't be hard at all for them to end up sliding twenty feet up into a fishwheel chute to their quick doom.

We need a marine biologist up in this thing.
posted by cortex at 5:32 PM on June 28, 2011


That's what she said.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 5:33 PM on June 28, 2011


Both chinook and steelhead sometimes stay in freshwater for another year before heading out to sea, though I don't know if they would have stayed year-round in the lower mainstem where the fishwheels were set up, or if they would have stayed in the upper watersheds where the water is colder and there are fewer predators.

But the basic point of the criticism is correct -- the big problems with the fishwheels were the sheer quantity of fish caught, and that it is a completely non-selective way to fish. That's a bad combination.

You'll notice that the fishwheel ban on the Washington side took effect in 1934. Bonneville Dam was completed in 1937, with the other mainstem dams following in short order. In other words, the poor salmon went from pretty well fucked to near totally fucked, and we got cheap power, safe river navigation, irrigation, and flood control out of the deal. Economically it was probably a great deal, but ecologically it's been a rough ride.
posted by Forktine at 6:41 PM on June 28, 2011


+1 for Barnes & Barnes reference.
posted by Theta States at 7:30 AM on June 29, 2011


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