Salmon have been in the Pacific Northwest for ages, including the Columbia River Drainage Basin, with millions of these large fish inhabiting its waters. Salmon are a vital part of the PNW ecosystem, as they are a keystone species that 137 other species depend on for nutrients (Rahr, 2016). However, since the start of commercial fishing in the 1800s, when in peak years like 1883 there were 42 million pounds of salmon caught (Northwest Power and Conservation Council, n.d), the amount of salmon in the Columbia River no longer compares to what it was centuries ago, and their populations have consequently dwindled considerably (CRITFC, n.d).
Salmon carry significant cultural significance to the tribes of the PNW: they are part of religious services, they have historically provided wealth as a trading good, they provide a livelihood of fishing, they are one of their First Foods, and they nourish the lands that the tribes have lived on for so long. Salmon also has a great impact on the PNW in general, as it is central to the economy; Puget Sound’s salmon fishing has an economic impact of $100 million per year (The Seattle Times, 2018). The Columbia Inter-Tribal Fish Commission serves the Yakama, Nez Perce, Umatilla, and Warm Springs tribe by ensuring that salmon populations rebound, providing fisher services, sharing salmon culture, and protecting treaty rights; CRITFC’s first goal is specifically to “Put Fish Back in the Rivers and Protect Watersheds Where Fish Live.”
There are multiple causes to the decline of salmon populations, as well as many nuances and details to this issue that could warrant an entire book. The first major cause that many would jump to point out would be the role of dams. While dams produce enough electricity per year to power eight cities the size of Seattle, and provide jobs for many people in the region (Northwest Power and Conservation Council, n.d), they have many negative effects as well. In the final stage of the life of salmon, after spending up to seven years in the ocean, they swim upstream for hundreds of miles to spawn (CRITFC, n.d), however, this upstream migration is obstructed by dams (U.S Fish and Wildlife Service). Dams not only serve as a direct obstacle, but they also inundate spawning grounds for salmon (U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, n.d). This inundation of spawning grounds as well as the altered water flow and temperature created by dams has lead to habitat degradation as well (Northwest Power and Conservation Council, n.d). Dams also cause sediment to accumulate in their reservoirs and ultimately degrade salmon habitat; coarse sediment is necessary for gravels that salmon need to spawn (Kondolf et al., 2014). Lastly, the transportation of marine nutrients from the Pacific Ocean is also impeded because of dams.Unfortunately, the many solutions to make these dams passable, such as fish ladders, have been unsuccessful, and the issue remains.
Climate change has played a role in the decline of salmon as well for multiple reasons. Higher temperatures result in less snowpack in the winter which results in less spawning areas (Hsu, 2019). Changing rain patterns are washing away spawning grounds, as Washington has been receiving heavier rains in the fall and winter that it is not accustomed to (Hsu, 2019). Salmon are a cold water fish, which means rising temperatures are a problem, as they become more susceptible to disease when temperatures rise above 65 degrees Fahrenheit (Hsu, 2019).
While dams and climate change can directly affect the population numbers, the introduction of hatchery salmon has had considerable consequences on salmon’s genetic health, although they have played a considerable role in the rebound of salmon numbers. Over just the last 7,000 years, salmon have lost a resounding two-thirds of their genetic diversity (Service, 2018). The importance of genetic diversity is not to be downplayed, as “Genetic diversity is often key to enabling a species to adapt to changing environmental conditions” (Service, 2018), and the interbreeding of wild and hatchery salmon can “dilute the gene pool of the remaining wild fish, even though the brood fish are carefully selected from indigenous stocks” (Northwest Power and Conservation Council, n.d).
CRITFC has an important fight on their hands, with many obstacles in their way. It is essential that this fight is not lost, as the salmon are as important to the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest as anything. Salmon are life to the indigenous tribes: the food they provide, the wealth they have given, and the ecosystem they nourish for these tribes cannot be matched by anything else.
George, Phil, and William Baillie Grohman. n.d. “Columbia River Salmon, Pacific Northwest: Chinook Salmon.” CRITFC. Accessed April 13, 2020. https://www.critfc.org/fish-and-watersheds/columbia-river-fish-species/columbia-river-salmon/.
Hsu, Howard. February 8, 2019. “Climate Change Is Cooking Salmon in the Pacific Northwest.” Popular Science. https://www.popsci.com/climate-change-salmon-pacific-northwest/.
Kondolf, G. Mathias et al. April 4, 2014. “Sustainable sediment management in reservoirs and regulated rivers: Experiences from five continents.: Earth’s Future. doi:10.1002/2013EF000184.
Northwest Power and Conservation Council. n.d. “Extinction.” Northwest Power and Conservation Council. Accessed April 13, 2020. https://www.nwcouncil.org/reports/columbia-river-history/extinction.
Northwest Power and Conservation Council. n.d. “Hatcheries.” Northwest Power and Conservation Council. Accessed April 13, 2020. https://www.nwcouncil.org/reports/columbia-river-history/hatcheries.
Northwest Power and Conservation Council. n.d. “Hydropower.” Northwest Power and Conservation Council. Accessed April 13, 2020. https://www.nwcouncil.org/reports/columbia-river-history/hydropower
Rahr, Guido. January 13, 2016. “Why Protect Salmon.” Wild Salmon Center. https://www.wildsalmoncenter.org/why-protect-salmon/.
Service, Robert F. January 10, 2018. “Pacific Northwest Salmon Are in Big Genetic Trouble.” Science. www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/01/pacific-northwest-salmon-are-big-genetic-trouble.
The Seattle Times. February 7, 2018 . “Disappearance of Wild Salmon Hurts Local Economy.” The Seattle Times. https://www.seattletimes.com/sponsored/disappearance-of-wild-salmon-hurts-local-economy/.
U.S Fish and Wildlife Service. n.d. “Salmon of the West – Why are Salmon in trouble? – Dams.” U.S Fish and Wildlife Service. Accessed March 3, 2020. https://www.fws.gov/salmonofthewest/dams.htm.