Salmon fishing helps define the Pacific Northwest, but this integral part of the Northwest’s economy and cultural identity has been severely degraded by dams on the lower Snake River.
Two-hundred years ago, when Lewis and Clark first traversed the Pacific Northwest, an estimated 10 to 16 million salmon and steelhead entered the Columbia River annually. About 4 million were destined for the Snake River drainage. Now, following dam construction on the Columbia and Snake rivers, there are fewer than 60,000 wild fish returning every year.
By 1986 Snake River populations of coho salmon were extinct and sockeye salmon were approaching extinction. By the mid-1990s, all Snake River salmon populations were protected by the Endangered Species Act, and fishing opportunities were practically non existent.
According to economic studies by independent economists and state agencies, the lost salmon fishery translates into hundreds of millions of dollars each year in lost economic activity for the people of Washington, Oregon and Idaho. A 2005 study by Boise-based Ben Johnson Associates estimated the economic impact of a restored salmon and steelhead fishery to Idaho alone at $544 million per year.
In 2001 the Idaho Department of Fish and Game calculated the direct spending benefit of anglers who bought salmon and steelhead tags in a rare year of decent salmon returns to the state: $46 million, with $10 million of that in the rural riverside town of Riggins, Idaho, alone. Another April 2003 study by Ben Johnson Associates placed direct and indirect angler spending in Idaho during the 2001 fishing season at $89.9 million.
By contrast, a 2002 report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers valued “general recreation” on a free-flowing Snake River at a paltry $5.9 million to $31 million. Improved fishing, both in the Snake and its hundreds of miles of wilderness tributaries, was to be worth a maximum of $4.5 million if the four lower Snake River dams were removed. This is yet another example of the federal agency grossly undervaluing one of the direct benefits lower Snake River dam removal would achieve.
In recorded history salmon populations fell first as a result of unrestricted fishing by European immigrants. Canneries appeared along the Columbia River in the 1860s, and commercial fishers used seines at the mouth of the Columbia River, the doorway through which countless fish needed to pass to return from the ocean. So many fish were caught that draft horses were used to haul the nets from the water. Fish wheels–giant water-powered nets that “wheeled” fish in–were eventually employed, scooping up tens of thousands of fish. But it quickly became evident that salmon were not returning as they once did.
The first hatcheries were built to sustain the over-harvest. Early harvest managers eventually dismantled the fish wheels, and salmon runs stabilized at a sizable, albeit reduced level.
Then came the dream of inland barge transportation and electricity and the prosperity they might bring to the region. Construction of dams on the lower Columbia and lower Snake between the 1930s and 1970s made it harder for young salmon to migrate to and from the ocean. Those that did return faced new challenges migrating to their spawning grounds. The Columbia and Snake rivers were transformed into a series of lakes that confuse migration instincts and make fish more vulnerable to predators.
Wild salmon and steelhead have been reduced by nearly 90 percent in the Columbia River Basin over the past 125 years due to a number of factors, but dam building is chief among them. In particular, construction of the four dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington state sent populations of upper-basin salmon and steelhead plummeting, and the region’s once-bountiful fishing opportunities have been reduced to isolated seasons on certain rivers–for hatchery-raised fish only. In fact, the region’s abundance of hatcheries were built to specifically offset the huge mortality rates for wild salmon at the dams, and now two-thirds of the Columbia River’s salmon are reared in tanks and raceways.
Recent years have seen modest increases in some salmon populations, but these increases have had little effect on listed fish. Most are of hatchery origin and from unlisted salmon populations and are no indication of the health of the Northwest’s most imperiled salmon runs. Salmon fishing seasons, if they happen at all, are a shadow of their former vitality.
Find out how Snake River salmon and steelhead returns fared in 2016. (after clicking on this link, click on the document to read both pages)