Washington rivers once teemed with five species of Pacific salmon -- Chinook, chum, pink, sockeye, and coho. Anadromous fish, they hatch and develop in fresh water, migrate out to sea where they live and grow, and return to their home stream to spawn (lay eggs), and die. For millennia Northwest Indians have depended on salmon; in pre-contact times their fisheries took nearly as many salmon as did later industrial fisheries, but indigenous practices resulted in a sustainable resource. During industrial development, mining, agriculture, logging, sawmills, flourmills, canneries, dams, factory-type hatcheries, and overfishing damaged or destroyed runs. Salmon require cold water; global warming threatens them. Since 1991, 16 wild salmon populations have been listed as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. Salmon are vital to the economy and iconic to the history and culture of the Pacific Northwest. The fishing industry supports hatcheries that breed and release salmon; some scientists and environmentalists question their extensive use. How hatcheries are managed matters. Efforts to preserve and restore salmon runs range from removing dikes and dams to repairing fish-blocking culverts to restoring shorelines. Restoration is ongoing but so is salmon-damaging development. Wild salmon remain in deep trouble.
The Anadromous Way of Life
Pacific salmon are native to the North American and Asian coasts of the Pacific Ocean. Their genus is Oncorhynchus (different from Atlantic salmon). The five Pacific Northwest anadromous species are Chinook (O. tschawytscha), chum (O. keta), pink (O. gorbuscha), sockeye (O. nerka), and coho (O. kisutch). Since 1989 the genus Oncorhynchus also includes rainbow trout/steelhead trout (O. mykiss) and cutthroat (O. clarkii).
Salmon begin life as a fertilized egg (an embryo) buried in a gravel nest (called a redd) in the bed of a cold freshwater creek, river, or lake. After the egg hatches but before the fish absorb their yolk sac and emerge from the gravel, they are called alevin (pronounced AL-evin). Alevin grow into fry, small fish that face into the current and begin feeding for themselves, mostly eating the larval stages of many flies, but also the bodies of their dead parent fish. Fry grow into parr, which are larger and move around more. Depending on the species, parr have characteristic black vertical stripes called parr marks.
Parr continue to feed and grow, utilizing slow-water areas in floodplain channels and river areas protected by woody snags or undercut streambanks. Parr develop into smolts. During smoltification, the fish begin migrating to sea, undergoing physiological changes that convert their metabolism to saltwater as they move downstream. Smolts remain for a time in estuaries (where fresh and salt water meet), to allow their metabolism to further adjust.
Smolts migrate to sea and become adults. Salmon live in the ocean eating and growing for one to four years and can grow quite large. The largest, Chinook salmon, also called “king,” grows to 20 or 30 pounds; some remarkable specimens reach 100 pounds.
Each species of salmon differentiates into local spawning populations, called in biological lingo demes and in regulatory lingo Evolutionarily Significant Units (ESUs). Different species and different spawning populations within a species have evolved to adapt to particular freshwater habitats (river versus creek or lake). They can be genetically distinct and reproductively isolated, spawning in different places and also at different times (due to the different timing of their life stages). A recent study reported that over the past 7,000 years Chinook salmon, "have lost up to two-thirds of their genetic diversity" (Robert F. Service, Science). A key goal in restoring wild salmon populations is preserving whatever genetic diversity remains.
At some point that is in part genetically determined, adult salmon begin migrating back to their stream of origin (called "homing"), navigating the ocean and nearshore to find their stream and swim their way up to the spawning grounds. An entire spawning population is never in one place at the same time. It has multiple brood years of offspring: Some are spawning, some are migrating upstream, and some are still out in the ocean. This factor helps preserve the population.
During the journey upstream, the fish must rest to allow their metabolism to shift back to freshwater conditions. Historically, logjams fallen into the river from the forested riverbank afforded them quiet pools to rest in. As David R. Montgomery notes in King of Fish, "Over the past century and a half, most Pacific Northwest rivers had logs pulled out of them and large trees cut from their banks ... . Studies ... indicate that an estimated two-thirds of the pools have disappeared from Puget Sound rivers in the past 150 years. Field studies also show that the number of Chinook and coho in a river is related to the number of pools" (King of Fish, 18).
To lay her eggs, the female salmon lies on her side and whips her tail back and forth to make a pit in the streambed gravel. She lays her eggs and the male fertilizes them. She then moves upstream and whips up more gravel to make the stirred-up gravel settle on her eggs. Both fish then die.
The carcasses of salmon that have spawned bring a huge load of nutriments from the ocean back to otherwise nutrient-poor rivers. Bears, foxes, wolves, eagles, wrens, and ravens are a few of the animals that feed on salmon flesh. Even salmon fry feed on the flesh of the previous generation.
Salmon runs thrive according to a natural boom and bust pattern, caused largely by 20- to 30-year cycles in ocean temperatures, which slowly oscillate. During the cold phase, upwelling of cold waters along the coast brings up krill and other salmon food and the salmon thrive, with little competition for food. During the warm phase "coastal waters are full of predatory tropical species that compete with salmon for a smaller supply of food" (King of Fish, 43).
The Salmon People
Indigenous salmon fishing was ancient, with intensive fishing on the Columbia, Snake, Spokane, Skagit, Snohomish, Okanogan, and other rivers dating back at least 9,000 years and increasing in intensity about 5,000 years ago as sea levels stabilized following the retreat of the Vashon ice sheet. Deposits of salmon bones and fishing nets excavated from archeological sites provide evidence.
Indian bands and villages along Pacific Northwest rivers were heavily dependent on salmon, which provided "the largest single source of protein in the aboriginal diet" (Making Salmon, 13). The technologies and practices of Indian fisheries were effective, with Indian harvests "fully comparable to the industrial fishery during its heyday between 1883 and 1919" (Making Salmon, 23).
Among Pacific Northwest indigenous people, beliefs and rituals surrounded the taking of salmon. A common belief was that salmon lived in five great houses (one for each species) under the sea. Once a year the salmon would travel from their marine abode to pay their respects to their terrestrial brothers, providing "a rich gift of food" (King of Fish, 45). If the guest were treated with disrespect, he would decline to return the following year.
Such beliefs resulted in restraint. To begin with, there were taboos on taking fish that were spawning. Then, fishing season began with a ceremonial catching of the first fish. It was cooked and the eating shared, with ritual disposal of the remains. After the first-fish ceremony, a waiting period lasted several days or weeks, during which the run continued swimming upstream toward spawning grounds. Other practices also protected the run. Montgomery wrote that along Oregon's Klamath River:
"fish weirs [nets that cross an entire river] were built in the ten days after the first salmon passed and then were dismantled after ten days of fishing. In addition, weirs were opened each night to allow salmon to pass upstream until fishing resumed the next day. Some weirs even had open gaps to allow passage of some salmon at all times" (King of Fish, 46).
Indians honored salmon and believed it had a soul, but they also feared its lack of return. They would have experienced poor runs due to the natural boom/bust cycles of salmon runs and also due to natural disasters (to salmon) such as earthquakes and mudslides that from time to time blocked natal streams and disrupted spawning.
The first Europeans to begin to fish and trade the tremendous salmon resource found indigenous practices to be quaint and superstitious.
Salmon and Settlement
A natural river meanders and sometimes floods, creating quiet side channels that salmon require. The fish also need their eggs, buried in gravel, not to be suffocated in dirt nor swept away. They need them to be nourished by oxygen-rich cool water flowing through the egg pockets. They need enough water in the stream -- a dewatered streambed is a salmon graveyard. They need access downstream to the ocean and upstream to their spawning grounds. They need unpolluted water.
By 1865, industrial activity had begun to alter the world for salmon and for the indigenous fisheries. For the most part these activities were conducted with complete disregard of the salmon runs, even though there were (unenforced) protection laws on the books and even though people with an interest in the salmon resource made regular complaints.
Begin with the mining booms. During the 1860s mining towns grew up overnight. By 1863 there were "25,000 people in southern Idaho working the Boise, Payette, and Snake rivers. Town construction at Ruby and Conconully 'essentially destroyed' Salmon Creek in the Okanogan basin" (Making Salmon, 49). Creek and river beds (including the Columbia) were excavated for gravel, sand, and limestone, and were panned for gold. Soon panning gave way to hydraulic mining, which shot creek gravel through flumes. The process required extensive ditch systems and dams. Detritus and chemicals washed into the creeks, destroying spawning beds. Salmon, both adult and juvenile, "were sucked into ditches and blown through nozzles" (Making Salmon, 51). By 1900 the use of dredges was standard. Streams -- along with their fish -- were rerouted into nozzles; hillsides were dumped into streams.
Farming proceeded without regard to salmon. Land was cleared down to the water. Wetlands and marshes were drained, removing crucial habitat for juvenile salmon. Lack of shade causes stream temperatures to rise; cleared riverbanks make no snags. Streams took on an increasing load of silt, which buried spawning beds. Irrigation diverted streams into fields, along with fish. "Irrigators," wrote environmental historian Joseph E. Taylor III, "never installed screens across their ditches. Thus even ditches with simple head gates diverted juvenile and adult fish into fields, where they died in appalling numbers" (Making Salmon, 53). By 1900, despite growing complaints of fishermen and others concerned with fish, "irrigation dams had destroyed perhaps 90 percent of the sockeye runs on the Yakima River...." (Making Salmon, 53).
Flourmills and woolen mills used waterwheels for power. To get the water to build up enough pressure to turn the wheels, dams were built -- without fish ladders. "[W]hen the Northern Pacific arrived at Spokane in 1882, mill construction jumped and salmon runs plummeted on the Spokane River" (Making Salmon, 54).
Grazing livestock compacted soil, which increased runoff. Streams became bovine toilets. In the Yakima Valley by the early 1860s, one rancher was running some 100,000 head of cattle and 20,000 horses. The land and its streams also supported some 2 million sheep.
Loggers cut down trees along rivers and streams, mostly the largest Douglas-fir, western hemlock, western red cedar, and Sitka spruce. Logs were floated downstream. Over time more and more debris built up on the river's edge and fires became frequent. Repeated cutting and repeated fire destabilized riparian woods. Erosion increased siltation; salmon redds were buried.
Splash dams were another disaster for salmon. Beginning in the early 1870s, loggers began building these makeshift dams on the lower Columbia and on its tributaries to transport logs downstream. The dam slowed water on the downstream side to a trickle. Logs were placed in the backed-up water, which was then released with the logs on a regular schedule, daily or weekly. Dewatering followed by flash flooding devastated both redds and fry. By 1910 there were 56 splash dams on the lower Columbia. As logs reached the mills, damage continued, since sawmills "dumped untold tons of sawdust into streams and bays" (Making Salmon, 57).
Egregious overfishing greatly contributed to salmon decline. Even today, escapement, the number of fish allowed to escape the fishery, remains a contentious issue.
Cheap Power, Navigation, Irrigation, and Waterfront Development
In the twentieth century Washington rivers were dammed to provide cheap electrical power and irrigation for farmers, as well as to create lakes for recreational purposes and for municipal water supplies. As of September 2020, the Washington State Department of Ecology inventoried 1,226 regulated dams (many do not cross streams but contain irrigation ponds, manure lagoons, and the like).
The Columbia River has 14 dams, and the lower Snake, the Columbia's largest tributary, has five dams. The Grand Coulee Dam, completed in 1941, made of "12 million cubic yards of concrete, stacked one mile wide and as tall as a 46-story building" blocked salmon access to "hundreds of miles of spawning grounds" on the upper Columbia and "devastated the culture and economy of tribes dependent on the fish" (Cassandra Tate, "Grand Coulee Dam"). The Grand Coulee made no provision for fish but other dams have fish ladders. Smolts must journey downriver; the reservoirs (former streams) behind the dams confuse them and they also get ground up in dam turbines. For the past several decades juvenile salmon have been barged down the Snake and Columbia rivers to get them around the dams. Taylor writes, "Barging continues not because science has proved that it works but because it helps politicians ameliorate disputes between the river's many users" (Making Salmon, 145). Dam operators also regulate water flow through the dams and can increase the flow to help smolts get to the ocean.
Rivers were channelized, straightened, and armored (hard-sided), and logjams removed to improve navigation and prevent flooding. It is important to note that a natural river floods onto its floodplain from time to time, with the sinking waters replenishing the aquifer. The practice of removing forests from floodplains to make way for fields or towns curtails a river's natural processes. Industry polluted (and pollutes) rivers. Tree removal warms streams and deprives them of woody debris. Climate change is here, warming streams and creating conditions more conducive to invasive plants and animals. Development that disregards salmon habitat creates impervious surfaces, causing fast, polluted runoff and preventing rainwater from sinking into the ground. New docks and bulkheads degrade salmon habitat.
Obsolete blocked or badly placed culverts that run streams under roads impede salmon in their journeys up- or downstream.
Fishing and the Fish-ins
In treaties signed with the tribes in the 1850s, Indians retained "The right of taking fish, at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations…" (Treaty of Medicine Creek, 1854). Yet for a century after 1870, in the words of historian David Montgomery, "much of the State of Washington’s effort at restricting salmon fishing was directed at tribal fishermen," even as the Native American portion of the annual take shrank from year to year. (King of Fish, 52).
Meanwhile the state "continually maximized allowable harvest by state-licensed commercial fishermen" and continued to grant commercial licenses (King of Fish, 53). What the Indians fished was the catch after the commercial fisheries had harvested the full allowable catch, since the state failed to consider the Indian fisheries in its planning. Natives were reduced to fishing the remnant upriver. In 1935, the first year Washington kept records, the tribal catch was 2 percent of the catch whereas “the powerboat fleet hauled in 90 percent. According to state records, the entire Indian catch for Puget Sound from 1935 to 1950 accounted for less salmon than taken by the commercial fishing fleet in one typical year” (King of Fish, 55).
Despite the statement by the Washington State Department of Fisheries in 1961 that "our salmon runs are now dangerously low and in many cases are even to the point of facing extinction…" (quoted in King of Fish, 55), it continued to grant more and more commercial fishing licenses. Beyond this, between the 1950s and 1970s sport fishing became popular and by the 1960s sport fishermen were taking more than half a million salmon annually, more than were being taken by the Indian fishery.
In a series of court cases over the years, the federal government upheld the treaties while Washington continued to defy them and ignore court rulings that upheld them. The public perception was that Indians were causing the salmon to go extinct. The reality was otherwise.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, Northwest Indians began to stage the now legendary fish-ins with leaders such as Nisqually activist Billy Frank Jr. (1931-2014) and Puyallup activist Bob Satiacum (1929-1991). In 1970, 60 persons (Native Americans and their supporters) were arrested during a fish-in on the Puyallup River that protested a three-day-a-week fishing season imposed by the state on Native American fishermen. A week later the United States Department of Justice filed a case against the state of Washington (US v. Washington, 384 Fed Supp). The trial, presided over by Judge George Boldt (1903-1984) began on August 27, 1973. The historic Boldt ruling came down on February 12, 1974. It affirmed the tribes' original right to fish, which they had retained in the treaties, and which they had extended to settlers. The decision, upheld in appeals, allocated 50 percent of the annual catch to treaty tribes. Many non-Native fishermen were deeply angered. The fishing industry in Washington state was revolutionized.
To act on behalf of newly empowered tribal fisheries, the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission was formed in 1974. After a decade of continuing antagonism between Indian and state fishing agencies, the commission and state agencies developed a cooperative model. The commission focuses on "preserving and restoring salmon habitat as a means of restoring salmon runs to harvestable numbers" (Jen Ott, "Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission").
In the Puget Sound region, the first hatcheries were built around 1896, and by 1900 five were operating. Hatcheries were seen as a cure-all, a factory system that would eliminate the need for river restoration or restraint in fishing. In 1911, John Crawford, Washington's superintendent of hatcheries, praising the "advance of civilization," declared, "there is absolutely no real reason for the eventual depletion [of salmon] by over-fishing...." (quoted in King of Fish, 161). His cheery optimism did nothing to slow the decline and extinction of salmon runs.
In 2020 in Washington there are about 83 state-run, 51 tribal, and 12 federally run hatcheries. Hatcheries provide many jobs and a reliable harvest for the fishing industry.
But hatcheries are not a panacea. An extended report on Pacific salmon published by the National Academy of Sciences in 1996 concluded that "A number of long-existing Pacific salmon propagation programs have been touted as successes, but these claims have increasingly been called into question" (Upstream, 302). And again, "In retrospect, it is clear that hatcheries have caused biological and social problems. For example, hatcheries have contributed to the more than 90% reduction in spawning densities of wild coho salmon in the lower Columbia River over the past 30 years" (Upstream, 304).
A hatchery fish is a domesticated animal, typically less fit in the wild. When hatchery fish are released, they can breed with wild salmon, which have evolved to thrive within specific stream, estuary, and ocean conditions. When this happens, the genetic fitness of the offspring can be diminished. Released hatchery fish can also eat the smaller wild fish, and they compete for food. Hatcheries, with fish more crowded together, can incubate disease, which, given contact, can spread to wild fish. In hatcheries, humans control the fishes' own biological function of sexual selection, with unpredictable long-term results.
To some degree, hatcheries can be managed to reduce damage to wild fish, for example by timing the release of hatchery fish to when wild fish are not passing by and by creating acclimating ponds so that during that phase the two populations cannot mingle. Hatchery fish are sometimes marked so that fishermen can keep the hatchery-fish catch and release wild fish.
Conservation hatcheries can potentially aid wild salmon populations by using native brood stock to preserve and reproduce genetic lines.
The Work of Restoration
The good news is that wild salmon populations are naturally sustainable and resilient. Salmon have a tremendous capacity to regenerate their populations, given half a chance.
The dire situation of starving southern resident orcas (killer whales), which feed on Chinook, has helped mobilize public opinion toward conserving wild salmon populations. A recent article noted, "Southern resident killer whales and Chinook are on a parallel path to extinction because of choices made decades ago to prioritize timber harvest, dam construction, urban development and industry's legacy of pollution at the expense of habitat preservation" (Loomis and Anderson). Fishermen -- tribal, non-Indian commercial, and sports -- all need salmon runs to thrive. Beyond that, wild salmon are iconic to Northwest culture and identity. But there are also conflicts of interest and disagreements as to how to proceed.
A relatively new situation is the resurgence of seals and sea lions since the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed in 1972. These mammals feed on salmon and congregate at river mouths where salmon gather to begin their upriver journey. Various efforts are being made to keep these mammals from feeding on salmon returning to spawn.
Across the United States, older dams have become obsolete, costly to maintain, and even hazardous. Most dams will never be removed, but dam removal has been increasing since the 1980s, with 1,722 dams demolished as of the end of 2019. Of these, 33 were in the state of Washington.
After years of sometimes-rancorous debate, funding issues, and scientific study, the removal of the Elwha Dam, located on the Elwha River in the Olympic Peninsula, was completed on March 9, 2012. Behind the Elwha Dam, the Glines Canyon Dam was also removed. Together, this was "the largest dam removal project ever in the world, opening more than 70 miles of spawning habitat to steelhead and all five species of Pacific salmon...." (Mapes, Elwha: A River Reborn, 9). An entire watershed was reconnected, in large part due to its traditional caretakers and inhabitants, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. Within days of the blast removing the Elwha Dam, Elwha River steelhead were on their way upriver past the old abutments.
Among other dam removals, the Pilchuck River dam, near Granite Falls, came down in 2020, opening up 37 miles of fish habitat. Also in 2020, the city of Bellingham blasted to bits its obsolete water-diversion dam located on the Middle Fork Nooksack River, restoring 16 miles of fish habitat. Dam management is also being improved, with better fish ladders being built and more water released to aid the downstream journey of smolts.
Throughout the Pacific Northwest and California, river restoration is ongoing. Landowners including farmers, tribal governments, state agencies, conservation organizations, and individual volunteers from all walks of life are replanting riverine forestland, removing invasive species, placing woody debris, installing engineered snags, and reconnecting floodplains to their rivers. Stretches of river are being unarmored. In the Nisqually Delta, one of the most successful efforts, 900 acres of juvenile salmon estuarine habitat have been restored. In 2020, 2,600 feet of shoreline along the Skookumchuck River, a 75-mile river in Southwest Washington, was restored by planting native trees and shrubs, removing invasive blackberry and knotweed, placing large wood along the riverbank and in the river, and reconnecting floodplain and off-channel habitats. The farmers who own this land are key to the project.
On the down side, population growth and streamside development that disregard salmon are currently exceeding restoration efforts. An extensive report on the "State of Our Watersheds 2016," produced by the Northwest Treaty Tribes described more forest cover lost than planted, more impervious paving laid down than removed, and more shoreline habitat lost than restored. Salmon remain in deep trouble.