Editor's note: Research, tenacious advocates and $16 billion have lifted Columbia salmon from the brink of extinction. But we have yet to figure out a sustainable plan to save the fish that provides food for the table and millions in business and ecological benefits. Today, we start a special series of reports.
The salmon of the Northwest are the stuff of legends.
Pioneers talked of rivers so thick that they were tempted to cross on the backs of the fish. When Meriwether Lewis led his band of explorers through the Northwest in 1805, he marveled in his journal of “almost inconceivable” numbers of salmon.
At one time, 8 million to 16 million Columbia and Snake river salmon rode spring flows from tributaries such as the cold, clear Salmon and Clearwater rivers to the ocean, living one to three years before making the daunting upstream trip to their native waters to spawn and die.
By 1995, that number had plunged to fewer than 1 million, and 13 species of Northwest salmon were placed on the Endangered Species List. Over the past quarter-century, research, tenacious advocates and $16 billion in federal investment have helped keep Northwest salmon from tipping over the brink into extinction. With bad ocean conditions this year, salmon returns are depressed again and fishing seasons are shortened.
Our lives are intertwined with the salmon and its fate. Residents get their power, their food, their spiritual sustenance, their recreation and their identity from the fish, the rivers and the wild nature of this region of the United States. Yet today, there still is no sustainable plan for saving salmon, and the changing climate will put even more stress on remaining fish stocks. This will make getting salmon to Idaho’s high-mountain habitat more critical than ever to the species’ future.
A federal judge has ordered dam managers to write a new long-term plan by 2021 for the fish and the dams, and to consider removing four Snake River dams in Washington state as part of that plan to aid migrating salmon. Just last week, however, a group of Oregon and Washington lawmakers introduced a bill that aims to ensure those dams remain in place.
For NOAA biologist Laurie Weitkamp, the secret to saving the Columbia River salmon might reside in the fish’s blood. By testing year-old salmon just before they head out to the Pacific, she can tell how well they are eating as they prepare for their journey. And salmon are in Nez Perce fisherman Eric Holt’s blood: As a 10-year-old, he and his brother watched as tribal fishermen were beaten with clubs for asserting their treaty rights to fish on the Little Salmon River, and he watched his grandfather be led away by police in handcuffs.
“You guys will know one day why I’m going to jail,” his grandfather told him.
The job of Lorri Bodi, a top environmental officer for the Bonneville Power Administration, is to ensure that the hydroelectric system that is a foundation of the $820 billion economy in the Pacific Northwest can co-exist with salmon.
The fish are the economic lifeblood of outfitter Brandon Glass. He takes clients for trips on the Columbia, in the ocean and in tributaries such as the Sandy River east of Portland, and he sees outfitters contend with a new challenge: smart sea lions that have learned to feast on the migrating salmon, eating as much as 40 percent of the spring chinook run.
Sea lions are just one more in a series of challenges to the survival of the Northwest’s remarkably resilient salmon. The question is whether the region’s imperiled species have the time to adapt before hostile river conditions, lost habitat, a gene pool diluted by hatchery fish and a changing climate make it impossible to survive.
HOW WE GOT HERE
For more than 150 years, we have altered the landscape of the Columbia watershed, an area the size of France. We cut down forests and replaced them with farms, drying up rivers where salmon spawn to irrigate our crops. Our mines filled streams with heavy metals and sediment that still bleed into waters and cover the gravel the salmon rely on to lay their eggs.
We channeled the rivers and diked them off from the flood plains that made them cool and complex and ideal places for fish in their first year of life. We built hatcheries to meet demand from sport and commercial anglers. Hatchery managers often bred fish with whatever broodstock they could get, even if it was fish from the wrong river. Hatchery practices diluted the wild gene pool that had allowed the native salmon to adapt to centuries of change.
In 1970, hatchery-produced fish exceeded naturally breeding salmon for the first time. By 1980, 75 percent of the entire run of salmon and steelhead was bred and born not in native riverbeds, but in hatcheries.
Today the hatcheries are far more careful about genetics and operations. But 80 percent of all fish in the river no longer come from the natural ecosystem in which salmon evolved and became the embodiment of the wild character of the Pacific Northwest.
Dams such as the Grand Coulee in Washington and Idaho Power’s Hells Canyon complex in Idaho blocked off nearly 2,000 miles of spawning habitat. Commercial fishing had depleted the salmon runs by the time the Bonneville Dam was built in 1938. Seven more dams were built, ending with the Lower Granite Dam near Lewiston in 1975. The river became a series of slow-moving reservoirs. So many juvenile salmon were killed trying to pass through those dams’ hydroelectric turbines and the warmer, slower pools that by 1977 populations had slumped.
Changes in dam operations and improving ocean conditions allowed the mostly hatchery stocks to rise to nearly 4 million in 2014. But their numbers are plunging again. Low returns of chinook salmon to the Columbia, Snake and Salmon rivers this year after a decade of relative abundance have hit the pocketbooks of commercial and tribal fishermen and fishing guides from Astoria, Ore., to Riggins, Idaho.
Despite decades of legal, political and environmental jousting, the question is as stark as it has ever been: Can we save the salmon? And at what price?
Meet some of the people whose lives depend on salmon and see how some questions can be answered.
The research biologist: Understanding where the river meets the sea
Since 2005, Weitkamp, the NOAA fisheries biologist, has netted and studied the juvenile salmon in the estuary at the mouth of the Columbia River and in the Pacific, monitoring the health of these migratory fish that carry energy and nutrients from as far away as Kamchatka in Russia’s Far East to high mountain meadows in Central Idaho.
Cargo and cruise ships pass her research vessel entering and leaving the estuary, accentuating the Columbia River’s role as an industrial artery for the Pacific Northwest.
Upstream 145 miles near Cascade Locks in the Columbia Gorge is Bonneville Dam, the first of eight federal dams built since the 1930s. The dams turned the relentless flow of the river into electricity that powers Northwest farms, cities, aluminum plants, computer servers and homes with some of the cheapest rates in the country.
Just 5 percent of all fish that begin the migration return from the Pacific. Most of the Idaho stocks, which make the longest trip and pass through all eight dams twice, return at rates a third or less of that.
“It’s really the exceptional fish that are making it back to survive, and we’re trying to figure out why,” Weitkamp said.
The estuary is where all the salmon come to finish their transformation from freshwater to sea-going fish. This estuary and the immediate Pacific is also where many of these juveniles die, eaten by predators such as Caspian terns or killed by the cumulative effects of the wearying journey downriver.
Weitkamp and other researchers can tell how well juvenile salmon eat and grow by measuring the level of growth hormone in their blood. Their research is showing that the health of this estuary is more critical to salmon survival than we ever knew.
About 80 percent of the estuary has been channeled and diked, blocking salmon from the wetlands they need for shelter from predators and to rest, eat and grow strong before heading to sea. The BPA has paid to restore nearly 9,000 acres of floodplain to closer to its natural state.
Weitkamp and her colleagues also want to learn how and why the Pacific Ocean productivity shifts so drastically.
They know that when the Pacific is cooler, when its upper waters are fed by upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich waters, Columbia salmon do better. When the ocean gets warmer, salmon productivity drops — sometimes drastically.
Part of this is due to tiny crustaceans called copepods, a fatty food source for many of the salmon’s prey, such as herring. Their abundance in the colder ocean increases the productivity of the food base and ecosystem on which salmon and other fish rely, Weitkamp said.
“I describe it like the difference between popcorn and hamburgers,” Weitkamp said. “When there are hamburgers, you eat hamburgers. When not, you eat popcorn.”
Warmer waters bring predators that feed on juvenile salmon. Many biologists point to hake, a silver-gray fish similar to cod, as the main predator. But Weitkamp said research is inconclusive on which of the salmon’s many predators, including endangered killer whales, have the most impact.
In the 1990s, scientists also discovered a reoccurring climatic pattern called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. It cycles through a warm, or positive, phase when the western Pacific becomes cooler and the eastern Pacific warmer. It turns to a cool, or negative, phase when the opposite happens.
For most of the 20th century, the phases lasted 20 to 30 years. In this century, however, the phases have been more varied and shorter, said Nate Mantua, a NOAA atmospheric scientist in Santa Cruz, Calif. Since 2014, the Pacific has been in a warmer phase.
But in 2014 and 2015, a “blob” of very warm water independent of the oscillation was seen in the northern Pacific. It had never been detected before. This blob was created when the 2013-2014 winter had none of the huge storms that usually mix the surface water down to 400 feet, said Bill Peterson, a NOAA fisheries oceanographer.
The blob ended in early 2016, although the warmer ocean phases continue, Peterson said.
“These have been the poorest ocean conditions I have seen in the 23 years I’ve done my work here,” Peterson said.
The tribal fisherman: Standing up for tradition, passing it on
The region’s Indian tribes watched helplessly as dams blocked off the rivers where salmon spawned and reservoirs behind them covered places such as Celilo Falls near The Dalles, Ore., where tribes had fished since time immemorial.
Beginning in the 1960s, tribes fought for the rights retained in the 1855 treaty that transferred most of their land to the United States. In 1968, Richard Sohappy and 14 other Yakama fishermen chose to exercise their right to take fish at “all usual and accustomed places,” as the treaty read. A federal judge ruled in their favor in a landmark decision.
A similar ruling, which came after protests led by the late Billy Frank Jr., in favor of western Washington tribes was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1975. That led to joint management of the Columbia and Snake river fisheries between the states and the Yakama, the Nez Perce, the Umatilla and the Warm Springs tribes, which helped prompt the effort to restore salmon.
But conflict between sport anglers and tribal fishermen lingered into the 1980s, especially in Idaho.
The Nez Perce staged “fish-ins” at the traditional fishing site where Rapid River enters the Little Salmon north of Riggins. In 1980, an Idaho State Patrol SWAT team arrested 36 Nez Perce fishermen.
Holt, now chairman of the Nez Perce Fish and Wildlife Commission, was a 10-year-old when he watched the armed confrontation with his brother, Vernon. Police used billy clubs on the fishermen.
His grandfather, Jimmy Davis, addressed the boys as he was handcuffed and led away.
“You guys don’t cry,” he said. “You guys will know one day why I’m going to jail.”
District Judge George Reinhardt eventually ruled for the Nez Perce and the charges were dropped. He ordered the state to meet with the tribes on management, which led to the Nez Perce fishery department that today has 200 employees and a $20 million budget.
Holt sees his elders’ faith and sacrifice in terms of the life of the salmon, which spawns in the river after its long migration and then dies.
“They give themselves to us in a way no other animal does,” Holt said. “They’re the only animal that doesn’t see their children prosper.”
Today Holt teaches traditional fishing techniques to young Nez Perce, making dip nets and gaffs.
Salmon are the first of the traditional native foods to appear in the spring, and the first salmon ceremony is one of the major annual celebrations of Columbia tribes. Other foods that hold spiritual and health values for tribes include lamprey, roots, berries and wild game.
In 1990, the Shoshone Bannock tribes on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation in Eastern Idaho filed a federal petition asking that the Snake River sockeye salmon be listed as endangered. Others petitions followed, successfully protecting 12 other stocks of chinook, coho and steelhead in the Columbia and its tributaries as threatened or endangered.
The actions placed the entire Columbia watershed under the restrictions of the strongest environmental law ever written, requiring federal agencies to ensure that any actions they take do not drive the salmon into extinction. Lawsuits quickly focused attention on the dams, the high rates of fish death at each dam and the cumulative effects of the dams on the juveniles.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and NOAA Fisheries took action to address the deaths at the dams. They developed a bypass system that screened the fish away from the hydroelectric turbines. They trapped fished and put them in trucks and specially designed barges and released them in the estuary below the dams. But state and tribal biologists’ research showed that fish that are carried past the dams through the bypass systems do not survive as well as those that go over the dams’ spillways. The research has not explained why.
Salmon that migrate both ways do show cumulative effects from their long journeys, but the bypassed salmon still return at lower rates in most cases. This has become the heart of the salmon-dam debate for more than 20 years: What is the best way to get salmon through or around the dams?
Repeated court orders required federal officials to improve the dams, and they developed a “four H” strategy: hydro improvements, habitat restoration, hatchery reform and harvest limits. Forced by a federal judge to spill more water (and fish) over the spillways to avoid the turbines and bypass systems, federal dam managers developed systems to make the trip easier on the salmon.
Today, 28 Pacific salmon stocks are listed as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. Only 21 salmon stocks across the Pacific Coast are not listed.
The outfitter: A living that depends on thriving salmon
Glass, the salmon outfitter who lives in Troutdale, Ore., has a front-row seat to watch the salmon’s success or failure.
Glass joined his father, Jack, in a guiding business that takes clients fishing for salmon and other fish in the Columbia’s estuary and tributaries in the spring and the fall. In the winter he fishes for steelhead in the Sandy River. In the summer he heads to the Pacific, where he takes anglers miles out to fish for tuna.
Glass and all other anglers may catch only the salmon that come from hatcheries as juveniles. The salmon and steelhead that spawn naturally in streams have to be released, except for the huge run of fall chinook that spawn in the Hanford Reach above Tri-Cities, Wash.
Columbia sport anglers have always had regular fishing seasons, even in lean years. Idaho stopped holding general fishing seasons in 1977. Many areas closed to fishing in the 1970s reopened, beginning in 1997.
A Northwest Power and Conservation Council report in 2005 estimated that sport and commercial fishing from the Columbia Basin produces $140 million in personal income annually. Boise economist Don Reading estimated that a healthy, sustainable salmon fishery would have economic impacts of $544 million annually in Idaho alone.
These contributions to the economy are direct and indirect, big and small.
Salmon show up sold as food, but also in economic activity that includes sales and employment in boat-making, fishing equipment, outfitting, motel rentals, groceries and gas. It includes research, hatcheries and equipment, such as the tiny electronic fish tags manufactured in Boise by Biomark. The power council’s economists acknowledged a recovered salmon population would have substantial benefits but said Reading’s study overestimated those benefits.
When poor returns limited this year’s fishing season for spring-summer chinook salmon, it was felt from Orofino and Kamiah on the Clearwater River to Riggins, Salmon, Challis and Stanley on the Salmon River.
“It hurt our business throughout the fall and winter with steelhead,” said Kelly Thompson, who owns Riverview Motel in Riggins. “With the chinook fishermen, normally the end of May through June everyone in town (is) slammed. ... It won’t happen this year.”
One business benefit: Fishing for the fish that eat salmon.
Over the past 20 years, newly introduced warm-water fish such as walleye and smallmouth bass have thrived eating millions of juvenile hatchery salmon. Jeff Knotts, of JB Guides in Richland, Wash., built a business around fishing for walleye, a popular sport fish in the Midwest.
“When the salmon and steelhead smolts come through, the walleye and bass stomachs are full of salmon,” Knotts said.
Washington has removed the limit on walleye and smallmouth in hopes of reducing the numbers of invaders that prey on salmon, which Knotts opposes.
One of the hungriest new salmon predators is the sea lion, which has shown up in big numbers over the past decade to eat the larger population of hatchery salmon.
Between 2014 and 2015, the number of sea lions spotted in the Columbia jumped from 137 to 264. Today, fisheries officials estimate that sea lions eat as much as 40 percent of the returning spring chinook before they get beyond Bonneville Dam.
Glass wants Congress to make it easier for federal officials and Indian tribes to kill sea lions when they get more than 40 miles up the Columbia. U.S. Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., and Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., have introduced a bill to make it easier for tribes and states to get permits to remove sea lions from below Bonneville Dam. The measure has gone nowhere.
“These are sea lions,” Glass said, “these are not river lions.”
The power broker: Trying to save the dams while saving salmon
Bodi, of the Bonneville Power Administration, used to work for American Rivers, one of the groups that has fought to restore the Snake River by removing the four dams. Today she is vice president for environment, fish and wildlife for the BPA, the federal agency that markets the power from the dams. Every year, it sells billions of dollars worth of electricity generated at the federal dams on the Columbia and Snake for use by the 10 million people who live in the Pacific Northwest.
Its 10,000 megawatts of electricity annually account for 28 percent of all of the power produced in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and parts of California, Utah, Wyoming and Nevada.
In her current job, she wants to show that the Columbia can have both salmon and dams. Most of the $16 billion spent to help salmon and keep the dams has come from her agency.
That includes devices such as “removable spillway weirs” that allow fish to go over the dams more naturally at lower flows. She helped convince managers to discontinue barging smolts through the dams on the Columbia and to reduce barging on the Snake. For fish that migrate in spring, what the managers call “smart spill’’ helps 96-98 percent of salmon survive each dam.
“Our fish travel times are close to or equal to what they were before the dams,” said Bodi.
State and tribal biologists acknowledge the progress but note that it came under pressure from federal judges. Salmon advocates want to see more water spilled at the dams to aid salmon, especially in low-water years like 2015, when most of this year’s salmon migrated to the sea.
“We know from the years of nature’s bounty that more spill means more fish,” said Ed Bowles, Oregon Fish and Wildlife Fish Division chief.
U.S. District Judge Michael Simon agreed. He has ordered more spill at each dam, which means less water running through hydroelectric turbines and less revenue for BPA. He also has ordered the agencies to take a serious look at breaching the four dams on the lower Snake.
Earlier this month a bipartisan group of Oregon and Washington members of Congress introduced a bill that would effectively overturn Simon’s decision through 2021, Annette Cary of the TriCities Herald reported. Among the sponsors are Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., Kurt Schrader, D-Ore and Greg Walden, R-Ore.
Breaching those dams would help the fish that leave the Columbia heading for Idaho. But many of the wild salmon that are listed as threatened or endangered spawn in Oregon and Washington below those dams. The threats they face include degraded habitat, and dewatered streams and rivers filled with sediment from roads and logging. BPA has paid millions to improve more than 15,000 acres of streamside habitat and restore 383 miles of river with expanded floodplains and side channels.
Working with farmers and even buying water in Washington and Oregon, officials got control of 400,000 acre-feet of water. That’s about as much water as what’s held in Boise’s Lucky Peak Reservoir, and it goes to keep rivers flowing through important habitat. Under Simon’s order, over the next four years federal dam managers and fisheries officials will study everything they do. They will have to show that the progress they have made meets the law.
“A fair question is, are those investments enough to recover species and are those improvements enough to counterbalance the estimate of what might happen with climate change over the next 30 or 40 years?” said Ritchie Graves, NOAA Fisheries chief for the Columbia River hydro program.
On Monday: The fate of the Pacific Northwest orcas is tied to having enough salmon to eat.