The New Normal: Salmon in the Pacific Northwest

Chum Salmon, Admiralty Island, Alaska

Chum Salmon, Admiralty Island, Alaska

You can read historic journals from Pacific Northwest explorers and earlier settlers describing salmon densities so great it seemed you could walk across the river on the backs of the fish.

My granddad told me one time that he saw salmon so thick in the Umatilla River, you could walk across the river on their backs, but that was back in the late 1800s. And the irrigation project changed all that.

– Alva Stephens, lifelong Umatilla resident, from the Center for Columbia River History

Redfish Lake, in Central Idaho, near the headwaters of the Salmon River, is named for the brilliantly red sockeye salmon that once returned from the Pacific Ocean in such massive numbers that the lake shimmered red during spawning season. In 1992, exactly one (1) wild sockeye salmon returned to Redfish Lake, Lonesome Larry. The obstacle course of manmade alterations to the Columbia River basin have extirpated the native subspecies of sockeye salmon in the Salmon River.

That’s the new normal, isn’t is? We are busy extirpating entire subspecies of the five species of Pacific salmon. We create insurmountable obstacles to their freshwater migration. In the Columbia River drainage alone, the U.S. spends more than half a billion dollars a year trucking and barging fish around the many, many dams.

In drainages like the Klamath River, we divert so much of the water to other uses that there’s not enough left to allow the salmon to migrate up or downstream.

When the trucked and barged salmon, and hatchery fish, do manage to spawn, their saltwater migration requires them to get past the food processors that are turbines at those dams, killing and maiming billions of young fish.

We have altered the water chemistry of the ocean itself, changed its temperature and alkalinity, damaging the food pyramid upon which salmon rely to grow and thrive. And we over-harvest, legally and illegally, the fish that do manage to make it maturity, taking so many fish that there aren’t enough left to produce the next generation.

In our increasingly desperate attempts to preserve salmon, we have introduced hatchery fish, destroying the genetic diversity of the species. Instead of fish born of millions of parents, we have fish born of hundreds of parent.

At every step of their life cycle, there are manmade problems that, individually and in combination, have mostly destroyed a renewable resource.

Alaska alone preserves nearly healthy populations of Pacific salmon. And even those fish are compromised by hatchery practices in Southeaster and Southcentral Alaska, changes in the water chemistry of the Pacific Ocean, and over-harvesting.

As average air temperatures continue to increase, freshwater stream temperatures will rise. And when they rise above what salmon can tolerate, the salmon in those streams will be lost forever. It’s already happening in Oregon.

So when a resource extraction company tells us that they can get the gold, copper, coal, oil or other non-renewable resource out without hurting salmon, we need to be extremely skeptical. When a developer tells us that a dam won’t hurt fish, we should start with the assumption that it is untrue.

Salmon are a wonder. We don’t want our grandkids to wonder what they were.