Swimming Upstream to Save the Salmon

In the Pacific Northwest, salmon once was king. But as dams were built throughout the Columbia River Basin to power an economic boom, and as factories, farms, and mills filled the valleys, the salmon population plummeted. Now the question is whether it will survive at all. To revive the endangered species will require something of almost everyone.

Long before pioneers set out along the Oregon Trail to populate the Pacific Northwest, before Meriwether Lewis and William Clark mapped the area nearly two centuries ago, native Americans called it Nch'i-wana - "Big River."

Starting out in the Canadian Rockies of British Columbia, it gathered force and mass from thousands of other streams and rivers, thundering over boulders and widening out to flow unhindered through a magnificently beautiful gorge to the Pacific.

Along its 1,214-mile reach, draining more than a quarter-million square miles in seven states, it provided habitat for 10 million to 16 million salmon, whose annual cycle of birth, migration to sea, and return defined the region's natural calendar and sustained the native peoples.

All of that is true today for the Columbia River. All except the "flowing unhindered" - and the millions of salmon.

Though the river remains the region's environmental and economic lifeblood, it has been so changed that many salmon runs are approaching (some, in fact, have passed) the point of extinction. The total salmon population has been reduced to about 2 million, and some 80 percent of those are not wild, but hatchery-grown. Now it is apparent that introducing hatchery-grown fish may contribute further to the decline of wild fish.

Saving the salmon has obvious economic value - some 60,000 jobs are tied to commercial fishing, sport angling, and tourism. But beyond their dollar value, salmon are seen as a prime indicator of the ecological health of the region. They are part of a much bigger story of troubled fisheries around the world - 13 of 15 major fisheries are declining. And for many native Americans and other Northwesterners, salmon represent an enduring icon with deep emotional, cultural, and - for some - spiritual ties.

"It hits me very, very hard on a moral and religious level," says Reed Burkholder, a conservationist who grew up and still lives in Idaho. "They belong here. This is their natural habitat. They're part of God's creation, and we've about destroyed them."

More complicated than spotted owl

Solving the salmon situation could make that other Northwest species problem - the northern spotted owl - look like child's play.

Not only loggers, but farmers, ranchers, shippers, sport and commercial fishermen, factory workers, and those who rely on hydropower for their electricity (which includes just about every business and homeowner in the Pacific Northwest) will be affected. Groups representing these interests, state governments and federal agencies, conservationists and Indian tribes - all are involved in some way in regulatory and legislative efforts to halt the decline - and some are parties to lawsuits as well.

Still, the overall picture has not improved, and it seems likely that this year more salmon species will be officially listed as "endangered" or "threatened."

"Given the dwindling numbers, time is clearly running out," US district judge Malcolm Marsh warned last month, in a case that could determine the salmon's future. Critics of federal efforts to revive salmon runs have asked Judge Marsh to force agencies to take stronger measures.

In this case, the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) is in force. The controversial law requires federal agencies to design and implement "recovery plans" whenever a species is officially listed. Often, steps taken under the law impinge on property rights and restrict development, agriculture, and other activities.

To stave off further federal action, states in the region are now coming out with their own plans to rebuild salmon populations. On April 25, for example, the National Marine Fisheries Service held off listing the coho salmon in Oregon's coastal rivers only because state officials crafted a detailed and expensive plan to protect and restore fish habitat.

But conservation groups and other critics worry that the types of voluntary actions envisioned in state plans won't be sufficient to do the job - and then it will be too late.

Economically vigorous area

Since the 1930s, eight giant hydroelectric dams along the Columbia and its main tributary, the Snake River, have been built to tame the Big River, turning it into a $30 billion economic powerhouse. Industry, agriculture, and urban development (including hundreds of smaller dams built for power generation, irrigation, and flood control) have made the region one of the most economically vigorous in the United States.

Forty percent of all US aluminum, which requires large amounts of electricity to produce, comes from here. Sixty percent of the US grain exported to Pacific Rim countries starts its journey on ships traveling through locks along the Snake and Columbia.

But it is this development that has brought about the drastic decline in the native salmon population. The dams are the most obvious culprit, but there are others. Logging near streams causes sediment, which damages gravel beds salmon need for spawning. Waste from mining and other industries, as well as urban development, pollutes the water. Farming diverts water and also produces chemical runoffs. Consumers of electricity place demands on the hydropower system that affect how dams are managed.

The American Fisheries Society (AFS), the professional organization of fish biologists, has found that 214 native stocks in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and California risk extinction, while another 106 are already extinct. Those already listed for protection under the ESA include chinook salmon in the Sacramento River in California, chinook and sockeye salmon in the Snake River, and sea-run cutthroat trout in Oregon's Umpqua River.

"Literally hundreds of distinct populations of salmon, steelhead, and sea-run cutthroat trout are threatened with extinction along the West Coast," says Jack Williams, an aquatic ecologist with the federal Bureau of Land Management and co-author of the AFS report.

Over the years, electricity consumers in the Northwest (through the Bonneville Power Administration [BPA], the region's federal electrical marketing agency) have spent some $2 billion on efforts to protect salmon. These have included diversion devices around the dams, transportation of young salmon on barges and trucks from spawning grounds to the open sea, hatcheries to grow millions of salmon, water "drawdowns" from reservoirs at critical times of the year during the migration cycle, and habitat restoration.

Yet, the situation remains dire. "The traditional approach has managed to make both the fish and the consumers worse off," former BPA economist Lon Peters observes in a paper written for the Cascade Policy Institute, a private research organization in Portland, Ore.

Adverse effects of hatchery fish

After three years of study, a panel of scientists gathered by the National Academy of Sciences concluded last year that "some of our policies are based on deep ignorance." These researchers found, for example, that "hatchery fish appear to have had substantial adverse effects on native populations."

They have reduced genetic diversity among salmon populations, altered fish behavior, caused ecological problems, and probably displaced remnants of wild runs, the scientists reported.

Some experts question the worth of siphoning off young salmon as they gather in the slack, warm water behind the dams and then barging or trucking them downstream - an expensive process that has gone on for 15 years.

Last September, a scientific group commissioned by the Northwest Power Planning Council (NPPC), a four-state group set up under the Northwest Power Act of 1980, reported that "most salmon and steelhead populations in the Snake-Columbia basin have plummeted during the period of mass transportation."

The NPPC prefers water drawdowns at dam reservoirs during critical fish-migration times.

But those who benefit from the dams (mainly power users and irrigators) say drawdowns can damage fish as well. Direct Services Industries Inc. (which represents six aluminum companies) warns that "excessive spill causes supersaturation of river water with dissolved gases, particularly nitrogen, which can kill juvenile salmon" by giving them the "bends."

So in essence, each of the main ways of helping salmon that have been tried - hatcheries, barging, and dam drawdowns - has economic opponents backed up with scientific study.

Or as Angus Duncan, former NPPC chairman, has said: "We continue trying to engineer our way out of biological problems that often are themselves the consequences of engineering successes."

The recent rise in ocean temperatures (caused by the "El Nio" effect and perhaps global warming) may also affect the salmon cycle. The BPA's 1996 report says warming of ocean temperatures has changed food availability and the distribution of predators; it estimates that as much as 50 percent of salmon mortality may occur in the ocean.

Perhaps one reason the problem is so troublesome is that there is no regional body capable of ensuring that states work together on a solution. The Northwest Power Act passed by Congress created the NPPC to coordinate regional energy policy while protecting fish and wildlife in four affected states (Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana). But "neither the council nor anyone else [has] had enough authority to unite diverse actors behind a single policy for the river and its fish and wildlife," states a council background paper. "In many instances, a dissatisfied party could prevent an action simply by not cooperating."

Earlier this month, for example, Montana Gov. Marc Racicot (R) announced that he was pulling his state out of a team put together by the National Marine Fisheries Service to address technical and management issues related to salmon.

NMFS is so focused on officially listed endangered species, Governor Racicot complained, that other fish and wildlife in Montana that are in trouble as well (such as sturgeon and bull trout) are harmed when reservoirs in his state are lowered to provide water for downstream salmon.

Still, there is general agreement that more needs to be done - either voluntarily or under court order, if it comes to that.

"If we don't step up to the plate, if we continue to fail as stewards of our salmon populations, the federal government will try to do the job for us," Washington State fish and wildlife director Bern Shanks said last month in unveiling a new state plan to rebuild salmon runs there. It includes setting stricter limits on fish harvests, regulating hatchery operations more closely, and setting up local watershed councils to restore and protect habitat areas.

"All the compromises have been made and wild salmon continue their downward spiral," Mr. Shanks said. "It is clear that all of us, from the cities around Puget Sound, to the rancher in eastern Washington to the commercial fisherman in western Washington, are going to have to make significant sacrifices to save our troubled fish runs."

Here in Oregon, Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) has put together a 2,700-page plan to protect coho salmon in the coastal rivers south of the Columbia, mainly through local watershed councils. (Coho are already extinct in the Snake River.) Backed by the Republican legislature, the plan includes fishing restrictions, improved hatchery practices, and efforts by ranchers and private timberland owners to protect and restore the streams through which salmon migrate to sea as juveniles and then return as adults to spawn.

The timber industry (already hard-hit by logging restrictions due to endangered-species listing of the northern spotted owl) is keen to avoid more federal controls.

While Governor Kitzhaber has a good reputation among environmentalists, they are wary of a plan that relies largely on voluntary efforts, even though the state and the timber industry together have pledged $30 million to pay for the plan and even though federal officials would still have the power to approve elements of the plan.

Some opponents are vowing to go to court to force listing of Oregon salmon under the ESA. They were cheered recently when a federal judge in Texas ruled the US Fish and Wildlife Service could not keep a salamander off the endangered species list just because state agencies were involved in a protection plan.

But some are heartened by state efforts. "We still have much of what is needed to preserve and restore healthy runs," says the BLM's Williams, who recommends watershed-level restoration and limiting "technological interferences" such as hatcheries and barging. "Bringing back salmon will not be easy," he adds. "But if we commit ourselves to goals such as these, the chances are good that our children, their children, and future generations will continue to be thrilled by the sight of wild salmon in the West."

Life Cycle of the Northwest Salmon

1. Starting Out

In the spring, young salmon head downriver toward the sea. Most follow the coastline toward Alaska into the north Pacific, traveling thousands of miles over two years and feeding on sand lance, herring, and squid. Some grow quite large, and can weigh close to 80 pounds.

2. In the Ocean

Salmon encounter many predators including sea lions, tuna, killer whales, and fishermen.

3. Returning Home

Salmon begin their journey back to their 'home' stream. Their magnetic sensing system and acute sense of smell help direct them. As they readjust to fresh water, their shape and color change. Some turn red and green and develop hooked snouts, while backs form humps. The fish stop feeding, and live off stored fat.

4. Spawning

After reaching the 'home' stream, the female scoops out a hole in the gravel and spawns with a male. Less than one percent of the average 4,300 eggs will yield fish that will return as adults to spawn.

5. Eggs

The female covers her fertilized eggs with gravel. Clear water flows through and provides the eggs with oxygen. But the eggs can be subject to sediment that can impede the flow of clear water.

6. Protecting the eggs

The female will sometimes sacrifice her life to defend her eggs. After a week or so, she will die.

7. Regeneration

Salmon hatchlings are transparent. They are able to swim under the gravel for safety as they continue to grow. They feed off their large yolk sack.

8. Smolts

Young salmon, called smolts, change as their bodies adjust to salt water. Their gills and kidneys function differently. The change is as dramatic as when tadpoles turn into frogs.

9. Migration

Smolts head out to sea, often tail first. Facing predators, turbines, and slack-water reservoirs, many never make it through the big reservoirs behind the Columbia River dams. Some are transported down the river in barges. Biologists believe this may disorient the fish when they return to spawn.

10. In the Estuary

Sea water mixes with saltwater at the mouth of the Columbia River. For two weeks, the smolts adjust to the salt water environment. Finally, the salmon are ready to head out to sea.


1. Farmers irrigate more selectively in order to conserve water needed to improve stream flows.

2. The timber industry restricts its operations in riparian areas, since logging there can damage gravel beds and raise water temperatures where salmon spawn.

3. Sport, commercial, and native American fishermen adjust their seasonal catch in response to annual salmon runs.

4. Dam operators let more water spill over and around dams at critical times during the salmon migration cycle.

5. Hatcheries reduce operations until scientists determine the full impact of such "fish farms" on wild salmon.

6. Residential and industrial consumers of hydropower conserve energy to allow for more natural river flows.

7. Commercial and residential developers take steps to prevent erosion that damages salmon streams.

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