CORVALLIS - For many Northwest gillnetters, federal salmon disaster relief programs have been a case of too little, too late, some of them have told an Oregon State University research team.

In a recently completed survey of gillnetters in Washington and Oregon, OSU anthropologist Court Smith heard many fishermen express bitterness, frustration and a sense of helplessness in the face of the continued decline of the salmon, and limitations on their ability to catch the fish.

Smith, aided by research assistant Jennifer Gilden, contacted all 666 fishermen who held 1995 gill-net licenses for the Columbia River, Willapa Bay and Gray's Harbor. Fifty-three percent responded.

The survey is one of three planned by Smith as part of a larger research and outreach project funded by Oregon Sea Grant under a program titled "Adapting to Change: Fishing Families, Communities, Businesses and Regions." Smith intends to survey trollers and charter operators later this year, and then combine results of all three surveys into a detailed analysis.

Smith called his report "an effort to represent as accurately as possible the perspective of gillnetters," including their recommendations for improving the salmon situation.

"This is a new technique for reporting survey results," said Smith. "Instead of the academics acting as the experts on what to do, the technique tries to let the people affected give their views."

Survey respondents reserved their harshest words for the way the salmon crisis has been handled by the government and interest groups. Many felt they have been blamed for problems they've fought for years, such as development of the Columbia River with little regard for the needs of the fish.

Fifty-nine percent of the gillnetters said they had taken part in one or more disaster relief programs, including a 1994 unemployment compensation program, habitat restoration and data collection jobs in Oregon, and a $4 million permit buyout in Washington state.

Asked whether they got what they needed from the programs, fully 75 percent said they did not. Some said eligibility requirements were too tough; others said applying for the assistance was too complicated and demeaning, or that it came too late to be of real help.

In Oregon, gillnetters said they would have preferred a permit buyout program like Washington's. But some Washington fishermen said that program didn't begin to compensate them for their licenses, equipment and other costs of gillnetting.

Of those who did not take part in relief programs, most either did not think they were eligible, or applied and were rejected. Fourteen percent of them objected to the whole disaster-relief approach.

Smith's report, which quotes extensively from the gillnetters' survey responses, notes that many fishermen said they were willing to sacrifice to improve the resource. But they want others who share responsibility for the salmon crisis - dams, sports fisheries, marine mammals, etc. - to make sacrifices, too.

A 12-page summary of the survey is available, without charge, from Oregon Sea Grant Communications, 402 Administrative Services Building, OSU, Corvallis OR 97331. Request publication No. ORESU-T-96-001, Survey of Gillnetters in Oregon and Washington.

The Adapting to Change project, of which Smith's work is a part, is an unusual effort pulling together six teams of scientists to investigate the economic, political and social consequences of changing fisheries in the Northwest.

Working with the researchers are Extension Sea Grant agents, specialists and coastal residents, who are developing resource materials and community-based networks to help fishers and their families deal with change.

The project is supported by grants from the National Sea Grant College Program, a program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, of which Oregon Sea Grant is a member. Additional funding comes from OSU.

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Court Smith 541-737-3858