When a Fish Is More Than a Fish

For the Nez Perce and other Native Americans of the Northwest, saving endangered salmon means saving an ancient heritage

  • Vicki Monks
  • Feb 01, 2000
Sitting one day last spring in the shady yard of his small clapboard home in Lewiston, Idaho, Horace Axtell unfolded a packet of wind-dried salmon, sliced paper-thin and shimmering with traces of the fish´s rich oil. An elder and spiritual leader of the Native American Nez Perce Tribe, Axtell had hoped enough chinook salmon would return to the nearby Rapid River for the tribe to hold its traditional springtime blessing ceremonies there. But as too often has been the case in recent years, the run was so poor that only a token harvest was held. "This is about all we´ve got left right now," he said, fingering the packet. "Right now, we have nothing to bless."

For decades, salmon in the Columbia and Snake River Basins--which carve through Oregon, Washington and Idaho--have been in decline, and many populations of all five salmonid species in the Northwest are now federally listed as endangered or threatened. In the 1800s as many as 1.5 million spring/summer chinook salmon alone returned annually to the tributaries of just the Snake River. By the early part of this century, wild salmon runs numbered in the hundreds of thousands. But by the 1980s, all Snake River coho salmon had disappeared, and by the 1990s, the annual average count of Snake salmon was less than 10,000. As of last year, all the remaining runs of the two surviving salmon species there--chinook and sockeye--had been listed as threatened or endangered. So had steelhead trout, also in the salmonid family. Only seven known Snake River sockeyes returned to spawn last season.

"We thought salmon would always be here, since they were here for thousands of years," says Alphonse Halfmoon, vice chair of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and former chairman of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. As he sees it, the tribes of the Columbia Basin have an extraordinary stake in salmon recovery: For millenia, the fish have been of central importance to their culture, economy, diet and religion.

Tribal leaders not only lament the loss of a way of life, they believe they owe a spiritual debt to the fish, and they are determined to see salmon restored to their rightful places in nature. To that end, the region´s Native Americans talk of further asserting their treaty fishing rights--possibly in court--in order to restore salmon to the Snake River and other waterways. The Columbia River Basin tribes, points out Nez Perce Tribe attorney David Cummings, secured what he calls "sacred promises" from the United States to take fish in perpetuity in exchange for ceding vast territories of their homelands to the United States.

Those rights have already been upheld several times. In the late 1970s, vigilante groups tried to block Nez Perce from fishing in the Rapid River, which once provided some of the best salmon spawning habitat in the world and was a favorite Nez Perce fishing stream. Idaho authorities called out the National Guard. Before the crisis was over, a number of Nez Perce fishermen had served time in jail. But in 1982, an Idaho district judge dismissed all the charges, ruling that Nez Perce treaties with the U.S. government gave tribal members the right to fish in any streams their ancestors had customarily used.

At many locations where few salmon now return, including the Rapid River, that victory has a hollow ring these days. Still, other court rulings defining treaty rights also have guaranteed Columbia Basin tribes a major role in fisheries management. Now, all the federal and state agencies working on salmon restoration must include the tribes in any decisions made.

The tribes also have become politically savvy, working to build consensus for removing, or breaching, dams that block fish passage and taking other measures to improve the salmon´s chances. For example, for more than a decade the tribes have been moving forward with their own fisheries programs. The Nez Perce Tribe, for example, now employs a staff of 250 in its fisheries department at the height of the season, including biologists, technicians and engineers. Nez Perce fisheries program director Silas Whitman sees the task as something of a holy war. "We are trying to retain everything that is sacred to us," he says. "A lot of people brush that aside and say, ´Ah, that´s beads and feathers talk. You guys drive cars, turn your lights on just like the rest of us.´ Well, yeah, we like creature comforts, but we are willing to live with restrictions ourselves in order to get the fish back."

The tribe thinks restoring the fish and the health of the water may be critical for continued human survival. "If we don´t take care of the water, if we don´t take care of the salmon and other species, then we will expire along with all of those species that we have destroyed," says Allen Pinkham, a former tribal chairman and coauthor of Salmon and His People: Fish and Fishing in Nez Perce Culture. He currently works as U.S. Forest Service tribal liaison, overseeing efforts to restore logging-damaged spawning streams on reservation land. "The water is the blood of the Earth," he said last spring while sitting under shade trees along the Clearwater River, a tributary of the Snake that runs through the Nez Perce reservation.

As he talked, a blast of pungent fumes swept in from a downstream pulp mill. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, mills and other industries in the Columbia Basin regularly discharge a toxic stew of chemicals into the rivers and air--including formaldehyde, cyanide, arsenic, chloroform and dioxin. Biologists have discovered that these contaminants and others can accumulate in fish. There´s evidence such pollutants may interfere with reproduction, survivability and even the ability of salmon to navigate to spawning streams. No one yet knows if the toxics affect human health, but that question could be of special concern to those who consume a lot of fish in their diets.

Even without the problems presented by degraded and contaminated streams, the region´s dams have made thousands of miles of spawning habitat difficult to reach or inaccessible. A 1960s Oregon Historical Society film shows thousands of chinooks stranded and suffocating in shallow pools below the Oxbow Dam, then just completed, in Hell´s Canyon along the Oregon-Idaho border. The Oxbow is one of three dams in the canyon that cut off access for the fish to more than half the spawning grounds in the Snake River drainage, which holds 24 dams altogether. Seventy-eight more dams cross the Columbia Basin. Some, but not all, of the dams were constructed with fish ladders that can help returning adult salmon migrate upstream. Efforts over the past two decades to help juvenile salmon navigate downstream past these obstacles to make their way back to the ocean have had only limited success, however.

The Dalles Dam on the Columbia, completed in 1960, flooded what had been the most important fishing and trading center for all the tribes of the Columbia Basin, Celilo Falls. According to oral history, tribal members had fished the site for thousands of years, tying themselves to scaffolds built out over treacherous falls, using dip nets and gaff poles more than 30 feet long to catch the salmon as they jumped the rapids.

Alphonse Halfmoon began fishing at Celilo Falls in the 1930s. He still remembers the day one of his friends warned him he had better tie himself off with rope or the salmon could pull him in. That is no exaggeration: A chinook, the biggest of the salmon, can be as long as 4 feet and weigh 40 pounds. Back then, they often weighed even more. "This man told me he´d gotten dragged in and got sucked down into the bubbly green water below the lower falls," he recalls. "He was getting hit by so many big salmon it knocked the breath out of him. He was getting hit in the head, the chest, everyplace." The friend survived but was so bruised he could hardly walk.

The upper-basin salmon populations, already affected by upriver dams, went into a precipitous decline after the construction of four dams on the lower Snake River--Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite--built between 1962 and 1975. Harming salmon runs, of course, was not the intent, and over the years the efforts to save the fish, although they haven´t brought back the dwindling runs, have been extraordinary. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the Snake River dams, estimates the agency has spent more than a billion dollars on salmon research, fish-passage facilities and hatcheries.

Since the dams kill so many young salmon smolts headed downstream, the Corps set up a juvenile fish transportation system, using barges and trucks to speed the smolts downriver. The system is far from perfect, however, and although most transported young salmon survive until they are released in the lower Columbia River, researchers say they don´t know how many later perish from the delayed effects of stress.

Tribal leaders see the Corps´ array of technological fixes as human arrogance. Not only have these efforts failed to restore the fish, many of the upriver salmon stocks are now facing extinction. "It´s time for a different approach," says Levi Holt, a Nez Perce Tribe member who has worked for salmon and wolf restoration. "If contemporary science is to succeed, it must include cultural and spiritual values," he says.

And so the region´s tribes have decided to try approaches of their own. Not only are they joining with environmental groups in lawsuits and lobbying for the breaching of the four lower Snake River dams, they are working on their own to restore salmon populations. Under the umbrella of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama Tribes have put together a restoration plan called Wy-Kan-Ush-Mi Wa-Kish-Wit, or Spirit of the Salmon. Says Allen Pinkham, "We´re saying, ´You´ve kind of screwed up the earth here a little bit, so let us try it now.´"

The goal of most salmon hatcheries has been to provide fish for ocean harvest or river sportfishing, and they usually rear young fish under controlled conditions. But the tribes have now begun several controversial, experimental projects that seek to restore wild runs, using hatchery stock to supplement naturally spawning populations of chinook and coho salmon, as well as steelhead trout.

Many biologists worry that endangered wild salmon will be further harmed if hatchery fish are allowed to intermingle and breed naturally in streams. For one thing, says National Marine Fisheries Service biologist Rob Jones, the area coordinator for salmon recovery, some hatchery stocks have degenerated into homogenized, genetic mishmashes. Jones fears that releasing them into streams with endangered stocks could compromise the genetic diversity and survivability of the wild fish. "If the stock is down to only a few fish, that´s a very big gamble," he says. "Mixing things up like that biologically doesn´t make sense. I think supplementation has promise, but only in places where it will not jeopardize the remaining stocks of wild fish."

Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission executive director Don Sampson points out that the tribal projects use only salmon with carefully selected genetic qualities. For example, only offspring from strong, long-distance fish are placed in upper Snake River tributaries. After that, Sampson says, it´s a matter of letting natural selection take its course. "Those fish came from the wild. If we allow them to go back to the wild to spawn and cull themselves out, eventually the strongest will survive, and they will rejoin with the wild salmon populations and make themselves stronger," he explains. So far, the Nez Perce projects have restocked fish only in streams where wild salmon no longer exist.

On the Clearwater, the Nez Perce are in the final design stages of a project to reestablish coho salmon and supplement chinook. This past summer the tribe used helicopters to plant hatchery-raised fry in pristine creeks flowing through roadless areas. The idea is to let the finger-sized fish acclimate to river water for a winter before they head downstream. The tribe is also in the process of building a natural rearing-enhancement system that, it´s hoped, will help young fish adapt more quickly to the wild. Rather than keep the fish in long concrete raceways as most hatcheries do, the new rearing facility will provide habitat designed as much as possible to be like a natural stream.

Even if all these plans succeed, there´s one big catch. "These programs won´t make one whit of difference if we don´t do something about main-stem passage," says Nez Perce fisheries biologist David Johnson. "None of us are fooling ourselves. If we don´t do something drastic to improve return rates, nothing we do up here will matter." And that means addressing the effects of dams: The federal listing of many populations of salmonid species means that recovery plans could call for dam breaching--as well as for strengthened regulations on activities such as industrial processing, logging and grazing that pollute the water or damage habitat.

The Corps of Engineers is studying several alternatives for the dams, including one plan to breach the four lower structures on the Snake River. The Nez Perce Tribe went on record last year supporting that option. Others too have concluded that breaching those dams is the surest way to restore endangered salmon-- including the National Marine Fisheries Service; the Idaho Fish and Game Commission; the National Wildlife Federation and other nonprofit conservation groups; and the western division of the American Fisheries Society, an organization of professional biologists. "The science has pinpointed these four dams as specifically problematic to Snake River salmon," says Nicole Cordan, regional organizer at the National Wildlife Federation´s Western Natural Resource Center in Portland, Oregon.

The White House and Congress will make the decision on dam breaching, though, and the choice could affect barge transportation, irrigation and hydropower. Just how much impact breaching would have depends on who´s making the prediction. In the visitor center at the base of Little Goose Dam, the Corps of Engineers offers an interactive video that features a cityscape twinkling with lights. If a visitor selects an option to "remove dams" in order to save salmon, the lights suddenly go dark.

Yet the Nez Perce and environmental groups point out that the four dams on the lower Snake provide less than 5 percent of the hydropower for the region and in many years don´t operate at full capacity because of weak demand for electricity. Irrigation water from lakes behind those dams benefits only 13 farmers.

Whether dam breaching would help or hinder economic development in the long run remains an open question. Many local residents protest that their livelihoods will be ruined by breaching the four dams. But economic analyses suggest that may not be the case. According to a draft of a recent federal analysis, the region might actually benefit from bypassing the dams--or at least suffer no economic harm. Another analysis, published by The Idaho Statesman newspaper, found that taxpayers are spending $98 million a year to subsidize barge transportation on the Snake River. The Statesman´s analysis and another evaluation done for the Idaho Fish and Game Commission both conclude that the economic benefits of breaching the dams far outweigh the costs. Taxpayers, electric ratepayers and consumers would save $183 million a year, the Statesman concludes.

And those analyses don´t include the financial toll on the region´s Native Americans. Commission director Sampson points out, "The tribes that once relied upon salmon as the basis of their economies lost that wealth when the salmon were taken from the streams and natural resources were taken from the land."

For now, the Nez Perce are at least still holding onto the cultural wealth they derive from salmon. When Horace Axtell´s daughter Nellie was young, she learned the ancient methods for wind-drying salmon and preparing it for blessing ceremonies. The tribe´s elders taught her how to sing the blessing songs and how to show respect for all of creation.

"We´re still holding to that way of life," says Nellie now. "We believe that we can´t remain healthy unless the ceremonies are done to honor and bless the food. The old ladies taught me that we have a responsibility to keep the salmon. Because if the salmon goes, we go. If the salmon disappears, we disappear."

New Mexico writer Vicki Monks is a member of the Chickasaw Tribe, which historically fished in the Mississippi until the tribe was relocated to Oklahoma by the federal government. Monks visited the Nez Perce to report and photograph this article.

Life on the Run
A salmon´s life starts in a freshwater nest that can be hundreds of miles away from the ocean. Yet that´s where the fish must head after maturing to the smolt stage. Pacific salmon spend between one and eight years at sea before returning to their spawning grounds to start the cycle again.

The fish face daunting natural and man-made challenges in both their downstream and upstream journeys--including degraded habitat, altered water temperatures and dams, such as Brownlee Dam on the Snake River, that can block passage or restrict water flow.

Seasonal Pacific salmon runs once filled rivers and streams all the way from California to Alaska. Today the only U.S. waterways that still teem with migrating Pacific salmon are in Alaska.

NWF Priority: Giving Salmon a Helping Hand 
If four dams on the Snake River are breached, four key barriers to young salmon going downstream and adult salmon returning to their spawning grounds upstream will be eliminated. That´s one key message from a collaborative effort among conservation groups including the National Wildlife Federation, Native Americans and other fishing constituencies.

The Federation also is working to save river habitat for salmon in the Pacific Northwest´s temperate rain forests. And in the grasslands of central Oregon, the Federation is joining forces with Native Americans to ensure that management plans for federal lands include restoration of degraded streamside habitat. Also, the Nez Perce Tribe and the Federation are partners in a lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers for violating water-quality standards in the Snake River.

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