2012 Fishing Journey - Columbia River
The Columbia supports several species of anadromous fish that migrate between the Pacific Ocean and fresh water tributaries of the river. Coho and Chinook (also known as “king”) salmon, and steelhead, all of the genus Oncorhynchus, are ocean fish that migrate up the rivers at the end of their life cycles to spawn. White sturgeon, which take 15 to 25 years to mature, typically migrate between the ocean and the upstream habitat several times during their lives.
Salmon populations declined dramatically after the establishment of canneries in 1867. By 1908, there was widespread concern about the decline of salmon and sturgeon. In that year, the people of Oregon passed two laws under their newly instituted program of Citizens’ Initiatives limiting fishing on the Columbia and other rivers. Then in 1948, another initiative banned the use of seine nets (devices invented by Native Americans, and refined by later settlers) altogether.
Dams interrupt the migration of anadromous fish. Salmon and steelhead return to the streams in which they were born to spawn; where dams prevent their return, entire populations of salmon die. Some of the Columbia and Snake River dams employ fish ladders, which are effective to varying degrees at allowing these fish to travel upstream. Another problem exists for the juvenile salmon headed downstream to the ocean. Previously, this journey would have taken two to three weeks. With river currents slowed by the dams, and the Columbia converted from wild river to a series of slackwater pools, the journey can take several months, which increases the mortality rate. In some cases, the Army Corps of Engineers transports juvenile fish downstream by truck or river barge. The Chief Joseph Dam and several dams on the Columbia’s tributaries entirely block migration, and there are no migrating fish on the river above these dams. Sturgeon have different migration habits and can survive without ever visiting the ocean. In many upstream areas cut off from the ocean by dams, sturgeon simply live upstream of the dam.
Not all fish have suffered from the modifications to the river; the northern pikeminnow (formerly known as the squawfish) thrives in the warmer, slower water created by the dams. Research in the mid-1980s found that juvenile salmon were suffering substantially from the predatory pikeminnow, and in 1990, in the interest of protecting salmon, a “bounty” program was established to reward anglers for catching pikeminnow.
In 1994, the salmon catch was smaller than usual in the rivers of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, causing concern among commercial fishermen, government agencies, and tribal leaders. U.S. government intervention, to which the states of Alaska, Idaho, and Oregon objected, included an 11-day closure of an Alaska fishery. In April 1994 the Pacific Fisheries Management Council unanimously approved the strictest regulations in 18 years, banning all commercial salmon fishing for that year from Cape Falcon north to the Canadian border. In the winter of 1994, the return of coho salmon far exceeded expectations, which was attributed in part to the fishing ban.
Also in 1994, United States Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt first proposed the removal of several Pacific Northwest dams because of their impact on salmon spawning. The Northwest Power Planning Council approved a plan that provided more water for fish and less for electricity, irrigation, and transportation. Environmental advocates have called for the removal of certain dams in the Columbia system in the years since. Of the 227 major dams in the Columbia River drainage basin, the four Washington dams on the lower Snake River are often identified for removal, notably in an ongoing lawsuit concerning aBush administration plan for salmon recovery. These dams and reservoirs currently limit the recovery of upriver salmon runs to Idaho’s Salmon and Clearwater rivers. Historically, the Snake produced over 1.5 million spring and summer Chinook Salmon, a number that has dwindled to several thousand in recent years. Idaho Power Company’s Hells Canyon dams have no fish ladders (and do not pass juvenile salmon downstream), and thus allow no steelhead or salmon to migrate above Hells Canyon. In 2007, the destruction of the Marmot Dam on the Sandy River was the first dam removal in the system. There are plans to remove the Condit Dam on Washington’s White Salmon River, and theMilltown Dam on the Clark Fork in Montana.