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Can We Save the Northwest's Salmon

The toughest fishing limits ever placed on Pacific salmon have put a spotlight on efforts to reverse their decline

  • Grant Sims
  • Oct 01, 1994
In August of 1992, he slipped along the shoreline of Idaho's Redfish Lake toward home. He was well hidden from view by the water and the night. Anyone along the shores would have seen only wet stones and ripplings of rain-pocked water snapping into focus with an electric flash from the storm that banged along the crest of the Sawtooth Mountains. He didn't need the light; he knew he was close, and by the unmistakable scent and feel of it, he would soon sense that he had arrived. Accustomed to a crowd, he had lost his company some hundreds of miles back.

Come morning, when they found him, he touched the heart of a nation. "Lonesome Larry," reporters called him: maybe the last of the Snake River sockeye salmon. Over the gravel of a lake that had once blushed from shore to shore every autumn with the green and scarlet bodies of tens of thousands of Oncorhynchus nerka, now only one finned in the shallows.

But in some ways, a name like "S.O.S. Stanley" might have been more appropriate for Larry. For one thing, a handful of other sockeyes, cycling back in other years' migrations, do still reach Redfish Lake. And chinook salmon are still holding on in the thousands (though coho, one of the region's three historical species, are extinct here). More to the point, Larry's case brought home to the nation the sad condition of salmon stocks in most of the hundreds of westerly waterways that drain the mountain ranges of the Pacific Northwest. And it gave force to efforts throughout the region to reverse the fish's decline, from starting new stock with Larry's very own sperm to planning controversial spills of water over major dams.

Solutions to the fish's plight are as difficult as any in wildlife conservation. "There's no silver bullet for this thing," says Ted Bottiger, chairman of the Northwest Power Council, an organization created by Congress in 1981 as an official forum for the Northwest's disparate water interests and to develop long-range plans for power-facility development and related wildlife management. "It's a crisis full of raging questions."

The most visible step has been to curb fishing. This spring, the Pacific Fishery Management Council banned salmon fishing off the coast of Washington for the first time, again bringing national attention to the woes of the region's migrating fish. The council, which directs the West Coast fishing industry, also put strict limits on commercial and recreational fishing off Oregon and California. The Clinton Administration called the situation a "fishing disaster" and announced plans to aid fishing-dependent communities with $15.7 million.

But limits on fishing, which is only a small part of the problem, will not solve the woes of Pacific salmon. Rather, the solutions depend on a network of water, habitat and fishery user groups that include hydroelectric systems, public-utility districts, farming and fishing industries, freight-barging operations, a timber industry and the recreational wants of 20 million outdoorsy Northwesterners-as well as Native Americans whose cultures have depended on the annual salmon harvest for thousands of years.

"The whole of the Northwest is involved in this giant social problem," says John R. Donaldson, executive director of the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority. "Everyone wants to blame the other guy. But unless we can agree and cooperate, we're in court; and there are lawyers who will make careers out of fiddling while Rome burns."

A century ago along the West Coast, an estimated 30 million salmon and sea-run trout migrated as spawning adults from the Pacific Ocean to rivers and lakes they had left some years before. Today, the annual return is at best about a tenth that large, with salmon and sea-run trout extinct in a quarter of their former range and at risk in another half. Although a few of the remaining runs consist of mostly wild fish, hatchery-bred salmon make up 60 to 91 percent of the returns to the majority of western spawning streams.

Though there are only five species of Pacific salmon-chinook (king), coho (silver), sockeye (red), chum and pink-there are hundreds of separate stocks or runs. And each comes from its own freshwater spawning grounds. More than 100 Pacific salmon stocks have already gone extinct. If a stock is defined as the fish that return to a specific small creek, probably somewhere between 600 and 1,000 stocks still exist. So far, only a few broadly defined runs are federally listed as threatened or endangered, including three in the Snake River: sockeye (endangered), spring/summer chinook (threatened) and fall chinook (threatened). In part, the effort to bring back salmon is a race to prevent more listing under the Endangered Species Act. That step would have such broad implications for the Northwest that it could make the controversy over saving old-growth spotted owl habitat in the region look mild.

The crisis also reaches into the lives of vast numbers of other fish-eating species, ranging from the obvious bears and gulls through smaller predators including other fish, amphibians and insects. In spawning rivers, as much as 25 to 40 percent of the body weight of aquatic insects and small fish consists of protein from salmon carcasses.

"The problem becomes extremely complex," says Chuck Cederholm, a Washington Department of Natural Resources scientist who, while studying coho salmon in Washington spawning streams, discovered that 22 species of mammals and birds depend on the decaying carcasses for food. Even salmon need salmon: Their carcasses deliver a nutrient-rich soup to ocean estuaries, nourishing plankton that in turn becomes food for outmigrating salmon smolts. "So you have all this interdependency," Cederholm says.

The five species of Pacific salmon, along with their close cousins the sea-run salmonid rainbow (or steelhead) and cutthroat trout, have long been recognized by environmental scientists as indicator species, particularly sensitive to contamination of the waters upon which they depend.

The fish start out by hatching from eggs among clean gravel in clear, well-aerated headwater streams. The fingerlings mature for their first one, two or three years (depending on the species), and then over a period of months undergo the internal chemical and organic changes, called smoltification, that trigger their urge to migrate as many as 1,000 miles to salt water. There they feed as adults for one to three years until they return to the gravels of their origins to spawn and die.

Salmonids are particularly sensitive to heat, turbidity, silt and pollution. When temperatures rise in water held back by dams, lethal fungus invades the bodies of spawning salmon. Suctioning of river bottoms by gold-dredging operationssmothers eggs and clouds the water column. And the clearcutting of forests on watersheds often triggers erosion that pours silt into headwater streams, clogging gravel and suffocating eggs.

By the late 1980s, Pacific Coast commercial fishermen reported that their $1.2 billion annual industry had declined by 85 percent because of dwindling salmon stocks. Biologists who had spent the previous decade researching endangered stocks suddenly, in the 1990s, found themselves studying extinctions.

If the remaining fish stocks are to be saved, three main solutions are at the tops of various interests' salmon-restoration lists. The first is to address problems created by the hydroelectric dams of the Columbia-Snake river system, site of the Northwest's largest and longest salmon runs outside of Alaska. Smolts once migrated the 900 miles from Idaho's Stanley Basin to the Pacific in about 10 days, during which they underwent the body changes that enabled them to survive in the ocean. That process involves the regulation of the amount of salt in body fluids. But dams now slow the Columbia's former seven-knot currents to about one knot, and the trip can take smolts as long as two months. In that time, they can essentially become freshwater fish, unable to adapt to salt water.

Vast numbers also die when sucked into turbines at the hydroelectric plants. The dams' toll on adult salmon has been high too; various studies hold the structures responsible for killing between 34 and 57 percent of salmon trying to return upriver to spawn.

One possible dam solution involves releasing water from reservoirs behind at least some dams to create a flow through which spawning adult salmon can navigate more easily upstream and to help push outmigrating smolts away from dam turbines and move them more quickly toward the sea. But that option would decrease hydroelectric-power generating potential, and it increases the amount of dissolved nitrogen in the water, which can kill the fish. Still, conservationists and many scientists think the nitrogen hazard is minor compared to the alternatives.

The other main dam-related action is smolt barging by the Army Corps of Engineers, which advocates capturing and hauling the young fish seaward. Conservationists oppose the barging, which they point out has been in effect for the past 15 years of rapid salmon declines. Barging, which mixes wild and hatchery fish, can spread disease among populations and affect the imprinting that helps fish find their way back as adults. "And they are subjected to the tremendous stress of being sucked and blown through pipes, held in crowded tanks and physically handled," says Mike Rossotto, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon, a coalition of concerned groups.

Another remedy is to "stormproof" logging roads above spawning habitat. According to David Bayles, public lands director of The Pacific Rivers Council of Eugene, Oregon, research has shown that massive sections of the Northwest's 250,000-mile network of dirt logging roads break down each winter, smothering streams with silt. Obliteration of many of the old roads, along with storm-proofing those that remain would, says Bayles, cost about $700 million.

Then there are community habitat-restoration programs, large-scale versions of volunteer restoration projects sponsored for years by environmental groups. Oregon's legislature seeded such an effort last fall with $10 million. State fisheries biologist Jerry MacLeod, on loan to the project, says he's getting enthusiastic response. "These people don't want more bureaucracy," he says. "They want to roll up their sleeves."

Resource economists have estimated that altogether, modifying dams in ways that would better allow fish movement and restoring the millions of acres of damaged northwestern watershed would cost about $2 billion and two decades of hard work.

If all this takes place, maybe Lonesome Larry could thrive again-in the form of his progeny. Says Idaho Department of Fish and Game pathologist Keith Johnson, who is in charge of Larry's frozen sperm, "My responsibility to the Snake River strain of sockeye is to try to maintain the genetic diversity without which they are doomed as a species. I see it as a matter of having to make the best possible play with the hand we're dealt." In addition to Larry's sperm, Johnson's "hand" includes sperm and eggs from a total of 12 other fish that returned to Redfish Lake in 1993 and 1991.

Says Rossotto of Save Our Wild Salmon, "The fixes so far address a woefully small percent of the problem." Still, the salmon do have a chance. Optimists point to recent habitat-restoration projects launched cooperatively among sport fishermen, irrigators, cattlemen, environmental groups and in some cases the timber industry. Says the Northwest Power Council's Bottiger, "On the one hand, it all seems to be going horrendously slow, and it's frustrating because you don't know what more you could do other than blow up all the dams, and then you have biologists tell you that because of all the massive siltification that would result, you can't do that either."

He adds, "But it's going to work. There is more than hope in this movement. There is real substance, and the high value of a large body of people learning that the power of cooperation beats the heck out of the power of compliance."

His optimism is enough to make a person dream that one day Redfish Lake could again be as homesteader W.C. Jennings described it late last century, with spawning sockeye "so thick at the ford that I have been compelled to get off and drive them away before my horse would go across."

Writer Grant Sims reported this story from the salmon front lines in Oregon, where he lives and writes.


Death Traps of the Columbia-Snake River System

Once the site of the largest salmon run in the world, the Columbia-Snake river system is now an obstacle course for migrating fish. Idaho salmon face eight federal hydroelectric dams, as well as other dams on spawning tributaries. The dams kill between 85_and 95 percent of migrating smolts on their way to the sea and between 34 and 57 percent of adults returning to spawn.

The dams not only kill fish outright in their turbines, but also stress them in warm reservoir water, where fungus can sicken the fish. Migration delays can also disrupt smolts' physiological changes for adapting to the ocean's salt water. Other factors in the fish's decline include logging, grazing and mining that silt and pollute streams; predation; and fishing.

Historically, more than 30 million smolts journeyed from Idaho to the Pacific, and 5 percent (1.5 million) returned. Several stocks of chinook, coho and sockeye salmon traveled 400 to 900 miles inland to reach spawning grounds. Now coho salmon have been extinct in the Snake River since 1986, and only a handful of sockeye remain (between 1 and 7 adults successfully make the trip back to Idaho). As for chinook, as few as an estimated 225,000 wild smolts now leave Idaho in the spring (by far the largest run); about half of one percent (1,425) return. And the numbers continue to decrease.

Federation Tackles Salmon Problems

Saving salmon is a priority of the NWF Western Natural Resource Center in Oregon, one of eight NWF regional offices. "We're trying to work with federal land managers toward decisions that will save salmon," says center director Jacquelyn Bonomo. "But when that doesn't work, we will seek protections for at-risk salmonids under the Endangered Species Act." Among recent center actions:

NWF has filed a lawsuit, now being considered by a federal court of appeals, to force federal authorities to assert jurisdiction over small, private hydroelectric projects that impede salmon migration.
To protect fish habitat in federal old-growth forests east of the Cascade Mountains, over the past few years NWF and other groups have successfully appealed U.S. Forest Service management plans that did not give enough emphasis to maintaining viable wildlife populations. NWF forestry experts are now helping the agency craft new management strategies for the Columbia River basin.
NWF attorneys convinced the Forest Service to withdraw permits last year for suction-dredge placer mining on southern Oregon's Elk River. The mining would have destroyed gravel spawning beds in an area with healthy salmon stocks. "It's a case of preventing trouble before it occurs," says NWF attorney Pete Frost.

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