Cautionary Tales: Why the Past Matters


Text by Liz McKenzie and Photos by Richard Nelson

Walking on the Backs of Salmon

Since humans first crossed the Bering Land Bridge, perhaps 15,000 years ago, many Native American people have centered their lives around the yearly arrival of salmon and have honored these fish in their cultural traditions. Even in ancient times, preserved salmon were a means of commerce—traded by coastal and river people with neighbors farther inland.

In many parts of Alaska, salmon are a key element in the traditional subsistence economy and cultural lives of native people. Yet despite countless centuries of use by indigenous communities, the old stories tell of salmon “so thick you could walk across the rivers on their backs.”

Pink salmon crowd a small stream in southeast Alaska.

Pink salmon crowd a small stream in southeast Alaska.

Salmon have long been respected, not only as a food source but also as spiritual beings that should not be overharvested or wasted. Fishing methods and practices that protect the health of salmon runs have been well documented for indigenous cultures along the entire North Pacific coast.

This tradition of sustainable salmon harvesting probably began thousands of years ago, but it came to a sudden end when Europeans began intensive commercial fishing along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. By the early 1800’s Atlantic salmon numbers had declined so much that fish hatcheries were built in an effort to bolster populations.

Salmon runs along the West Coast were impacted by the 1850s, with heavy demands for fish to feed gold miners during the California Gold Rush. Sediment runoff from the mines themselves had a tremendous effect on the health of salmon streams. In fact, the Sacramento River in California has still not fully cleared of those sediments more than a hundred-and-fifty years later.

By 1900, salmon runs in Washington and Oregon were beginning to decline. In the decades that followed, fish traps, overfishing for canneries, clearcut logging, mining, dams and other habitat changes all took huge tolls on the once-prolific salmon runs


Fish Traps

Long before Alaska became a state, Europeans, Russians, and others began exploiting the abundant salmon resources. Some fish runs—like the sockeye salmon at Redoubt Lake in Southeast Alaska—were nearly wiped out because fishing methods and harvests were not regulated, and salmon habitat was not protected.

The Territory of Alaska was established when the U.S. purchased Russian America in 1867. The federal government largely controlled management of fishing in the Territory. When canneries began operation and entire streams were blocked by fish traps, the salmon stocks quickly declined. Fish traps caught huge numbers of salmon heading upstream, leaving fewer and fewer fish to spawn, so streams that once thronged with fish were now almost empty.

Canneries and the fish traps that supplied them were often owned by corporations outside of Alaska. For people who lived in the Territory this was a double blow—fewer fish for independent fisherman to sell and fewer fish for people to feed their own families.

Because of overharvesting, lack of regulation and enforcement, and inadequate management of escapement (the number of fish allowed to complete the spawning process and ensure the next generation), some wild salmon populations were literally in danger of being wiped out


The Fish that Spawned a State

Many living in the Territory were alarmed by the lax management of the fisheries and the staggering reduction in salmon numbers caused by the fish traps. The idea of petitioning for statehood was in part inspired by the decimation of salmon runs. Statehood would give the people of Alaska more control of their own resources.

Unhappiness with fish traps and canneries—both symbols of the wanton extraction of precious resources by outside interests—helped bring out people to vote for approval of a state constitution, a step towards statehood. Importantly, the Alaska constitution puts protection of natural resources as a priority.

When the U.S. Congress approved Alaska statehood in 1958, the first act of the new state government was to outlaw fish traps. At this time, the newly established Alaska Department of Fish and Game was charged with bringing salmon back to their former abundance.

Commercial, sport, and subsistence fishermen made huge sacrifices to help the recovery of salmon runs. Fishing was severely limited in the following decades and as a result, salmon numbers rebounded.

While salmon runs in rivers on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts were becoming threatened or even disappearing, Alaska’s wild salmon were thriving once again.


Ocean, Stream, Watershed

Careful management of fishing quotas is only one part of the equation. Protection of salmon habitat is equally important. And because salmon need both freshwater and the ocean, both are vital to their life cycle.

Wild salmon need cold, clear fresh water for spawning, for their eggs to hatch, and for the tiny fish to mature until they are ready for the ocean. All parts of a watershed are essential for salmon habitat. This includes the land, the vegetation, and all the waters that flow into a given drainage and eventually into the sea. From the rains and snow and glaciers that provide water, to the uplands that help to filter water, to the stream banks and estuary shores—all are crucial parts of healthy salmon habitat.

Unfortunately, there are many examples of habitat destruction or loss along the Atlantic and Pacific coast—land clearing for agriculture, logging, wholesale alteration and simplification of rivers, loss of spawning waters due to irrigation, sediments and toxins from mining, farming, and urban runoff, and river blockage by dams. Some of these same processes are happening in Alaska, such as clearcutting in the Tongass National Forest and on Native lands, which has impacted hundreds if not thousands of spawning streams

History shows that major disturbances to any part of a watershed that supports salmon can cause the runs to become severely threatened or extinct. It is important to remember that salmon runs are not damaged or lost all at once. These valuable fish have disappeared one river at a time, one tributary at a time, and one decision at a time—as other interests have prevailed over the needs of salmon.


Cautionary Tales: Why the Past Matters

In the Pacific Northwest, examples abound of what overfishing and destruction or alteration of habitat have done to salmon. The most famous example is the Columbia River system in Washington, Idaho, Montana, and British Columbia. The main stem of the Columbia has 14 major dams, but there are about 400 dams along the river and its tributaries.

The Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River blocked salmon from reaching more than 1,000 miles of spawning grounds. (US Bureau of Reclamation)

The Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River blocked salmon from reaching more than 1,000 miles of spawning grounds.
(US Bureau of Reclamation)

Some of the dams were built with fish ladders to help returning salmon over these artificial barriers, but some were not, including the four Hell’s Canyon dams on the lower Snake River. These dams prevented passage to the upper Snake River in Idaho, where some of the richest sockeye runs traditionally flourished.

The Grand Coulee Dam, also built without fish ladders, ended the run of 100-pound salmon called “June Hogs”. The dam blocked salmon from reaching more than 1,000 miles of spawning grounds.

It’s important to remember that dams are also a major problem for salmon smolts, which are often pulverized when they pass through turbines on their way downstream toward the ocean. Thousands of young salmon also follow irrigation channels from dams into farmlands, where they inevitably die.

Today, Columbia Basin salmon runs are only 8% of what they were historically. Many Columbia runs are extinct and 13 are listed as endangered or threatened.

A billion dollars is spent every year in a huge effort to help Columbia Basin salmon recover. Extreme measures are taken, like hauling young fish more than a hundred miles downstream by barge or truck, at a cost of $50 million per year. There are also bounty fisherman catching pike minnows who eat salmon and shooters who fire 35,000 rounds of non-lethal artillery annually at sea lions who wait below the Bonneville dam for returning salmon.

A hundred and seventy hatchery programs release more than 100 million fry into the Columbia River basin each year. Only 1% of those fish return from the ocean, and there are serious concerns about the impacts of hatchery fish on the genetic integrity and overall viability of wild Columbia salmon runs.

The severely endangered Idaho sockeye salmon must make an unbelievable journey up the Columbia and Snake Rivers from the Pacific Ocean—up 900 miles with a 6,500 ft. elevation gain. And past eight dams. The final leg of their journey is not to Redfish Lake, the home of their ancestors, but by truck 150 miles to a hatchery where eggs are taken and fertilized, hatched, and eventually released back into the lake.

In 1992, only a single sockeye salmon—nicknamed Lonesome Larry—completed the entire arduous journey from the sea. More recently, several hundred to more than a thousand hatchery fish partially related to the original sockeye population have returned to Redfish Lake. Before the dams were built, Redfish Lake had 25,000 to 35,00 spawning salmon every year.


Restoring Hope

Redfish Lake isn’t the only place where people are working to restore badly damaged salmon runs. One of the most hopeful examples is the Elwah River Restoration project on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington

Before it was blocked by two hydroelectric dams, all five species of Pacific salmon thronged into the Elwah River, including chinooks that weighed up to 100 pounds. There were also cutthroat trout, steelhead, and char.

Elwha Damn Removal

Elwha Damn Removal

When the two dams were finished in 1927, neither had any provision for passage of fish, such as fish ladders. This left only five miles of river accessible below the first dam, which meant 90 percent of the original salmon spawning habitat was lost.

Now, thanks to the $325 million Elwah River Restoration project, the lower dam has been removed and after more than a century the Elwah is beginning its return to an unobstructed flow. Removal of the second dam is expected by early 2013.

Hopes are high for the restoration of fish habitat along the Elwah River and for the return of salmon runs, especially because more than 80% of the river lies within the protection of Olympic National Park. In the fall of 2011, adult salmon were released into the river, about half stayed to spawn, and in the spring of 2012 fry emerged from the gravel beds.

This is exciting news, especially for members of the Klallam tribe, for whom the Elwah River and its salmon are sacred.

Also, there may still be hope for the severely endangered sockeye salmon of Idaho. With changes in stream flow management from dams along the Columbia and Snake Rivers, the number of returning salmon has increased in the last few years and is expected to reach about 1,900 in 2012.

This is still an extremely low number, but a hopeful sign that with continued efforts and commitment, the sockeyes might return in greater numbers. There’s a grassroots effort underway to have the four Hell’s Canyon dams removed, which would open up more than 5,000 miles of wilderness streams, potentially supporting the return of millions of salmon—if approval is granted.

And in Alaska, work is beginning to restore streams damaged by clearcutting, as the 17 million acre Tongass National Forest shifts from management for timber harvest to one that focuses more on salmon production.


Current Status of Salmon in North America

Wild Atlantic salmon—once abundant in most major rivers in the northeastern United States—now are few in number and limited to rivers in Maine. No commercial fishing of wild Atlantic salmon is allowed. They are listed as endangered and protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Commercial salmon trollers anchored in the sheltered lee of an island in southeast Alaska, where salmon populations are still healthy.

Commercial salmon trollers anchored in the sheltered lee of an island in southeast Alaska, where salmon populations are still healthy.

Salmon on the Pacific coast of Washington, Oregon, and California have not fared much better. They’ve disappeared from one-third of the areas where they formerly thrived. Runs are only 6-7% of what they were historically. Of the remaining stocks, many are listed as endangered (in danger of becoming extinct) or threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

In Alaska today, most populations are still healthy, but there are challenges ahead as decisions made in the near future about development of dams and large-scale mining could threaten important salmon runs.

Can we learn the lessons of past mistakes or will we repeat them? It is entirely in our hands to make the choice to preserve this precious sustainable resource, to put salmon first.

Mark Bethka