Saving the Columbia River Salmon

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The Bonneville Dam and others like it have had a disastrous impact on Columbia River salmon. INSET: Irene and Kent Martin.

Kent Martin sits in the living room of his comfortable
two-story home watching raindrops pound the sliding-glass
doors. Outside, pastures already damp with puddles drain
into a creek that meanders down the Skama Valley to the
hamlet of Skamokawa, Washington, where it empties into
Brooks Slough and the broad expanse of the Columbia River.
The river and those fields sustained Kent Martin’s father,
his grandfather, his great-grandfather and thousands of
other Nordic immigrants who settled the fishing communities
on the Lower Columbia.

But they no longer sustain Kent Martin

“This is incredibly painful. It’s like living in a
mausoleum,” says the barrel-chested commercial fisherman
whose steel-rimmed glasses and shining pate give him an
American Gothic air. “I’ve seen fire departments, schools,
churches, all the institutions holding these communities
together, falling apart. Everything people said in the
1940s is coming true like a curse:”

What people said, particularly a young fisheries biologist
named Joseph A. Craig, was that the rapid industrialization
of the Pacific Northwest was having a dramatic impact on a
resource once thought as inexhaustible as the mighty river
itself: Columbia River salmon. As early as 1935, Craig
warned that logging, soil erosion, mining, pollution,
irrigation, and overfishing were taking their toll on
salmon stocks that were diminishing even then. Craig was
particularly concerned with the large hydroelectric dams
proposed for the Columbia River. He warned that dams would
flood spawning grounds, hinder juvenile fish on their way
to the sea, and, if built without adequate fish passages,
would annihilate entire runs.

“As power and irrigation projects become more numerous,” he
wrote, “the protection and conservation of the migratory
fishes of the Columbia present a problem that requires the
best efforts of our engineers and biologists and the
cooperation of the state and federal agencies involved, if
this resource is to be maintained.”

Since then more than 200 dams have been built in the
Texas-sized Columbia River Basin, many with faulty fish
ladders or none at all. Half of the salmons’ original
spawning ground is no longer accessible to them. In
addition, farmers diverted river water to irrigate more
than eight million acres of fertile desert, while loggers
clearcut swaths through the Northwest’s temperate rain
forest. The dams also succeeded where plate tectonics
failed, creating a seaport in Idaho.

Not surprisingly, salmon have returned in fewer and fewer
numbers to a river that, after five million years of annual
migrations, began looking startlingly unfamiliar. An
estimated 16 million salmon were spawning in the Columbia
and its tributaries when Lewis and Clark arrived in 1802.
Only 300,000 wild salmon and steelhead return to the
Columbia basin today, and that number is dwindling. Recent
studies estimate 90 percent or more of human-inflicted
mortality comes from the dams and the reservoirs behind

Last October the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)
released a draft proposal to save four threatened or
endangered salmon runs in Idaho’s Snake River, the
Columbia’s major tributary. These are some of the toughest
salmon in the system, swimming 900 miles upstream to an
elevation of 6,500 feet and fording eight monolithic dams
on the Snake and Columbia rivers. The plan called for
eliminating fishermen like Kent Martin from the Lower
Columbia by 2002 and for continued study of the dam

“We have some of the best salmonid biologists in the nation
here,” Martin says. “You sit down and have a cup of coffee
with them and for most there is this impotent rage that
comes over them because of what’s being done to this
system. Because what’s running this system is politics, not

Bob Eaton knows a thing or two about the politics of power.
As executive director of Salmon For All, he represents some
800 commercial fishermen and processors on the Lower
Columbia. An enormous chinook salmon, steely gray with
mouth agape, hangs on his office wall at the port of
Astoria, Oregon. Tankers and grain ships glide by his
office window, waiting their turn to enter Portland’s ship

“To talk about the Columbia River is really inaccurate,”
says Eaton. “We don’t have a river anymore. We have a
series of ponds, bathtubs. We’ve created an environment for
anadromous fish that stresses them terribly.” Four years
ago Eaton represented commercial fishermen at the so-called
Salmon Summit, an attempt by Senator Mark Hatfield (D-OR)
to bring together industry, agriculture, and fishing
interests to forge a regional solution to the declining
runs. But instead of contributing to a constructive
discussion on saving salmon, Eaton says, the state
fisheries managers were immediately blasted by the dam
interests for not doing their jobs. This broadside was
launched despite the fact that one of the threatened runs,
the summer Chinook, has been off-limits to fishermen since

“Early on at the Salmon Summit it was evident that if you
eliminated the commercial and sport fisheries on these
stocks from Alaska to the Danes, you still couldn’t save
those runs,” says Eaton. The problem is that the protected
fish–Snake River sockeye and spring, summer, and fall
chinook–at times mingle with healthy wild stocks and
the 2.2 million hatchery fish that return to the Columbia
each year. The healthiest run of wild fish, ironically,
spawns in the Hanford Reach, a 50-mile-long stretch that
courses through the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the site
of widespread radioactive contamination. The run is “the
guts” of the fishery, according to Eaton, for both Lower
Columbia gill-netters and the Indian tribes that fish above
Bonneville Dam and are allowed half the in-river catch by

Fishermen say they only catch three to five percent of the
returning Snake River fish, while nearly half die
negotiating the fish ladders on the eight main stem dams.
Yet the runs are so depleted that each fish has become
vital to the population’s survival. What angers Bob Eaton
is that eliminating the gill-netters is much easier,
cheaper, and far less politically painful than making the
dams more friendly to fish. The NMFS draft recovery plan
says that “while it may be controversial to compensate
fishermen for giving up the privilege of harvesting a
public resource, no other measure seems likely to produce
mature spawners at so little cost.”

“The question is whether there is political will to do more
than maintain gene pools,” says Eaton. “If your goal is to
support a commercial and sport fishery, then you’ve got a
resource, not a museum piece. But if the goal is to get
them back to cameo size, then there is no future for sport
or commercial fisheries in the Northwest.”

Not far from the port of Astoria, the Columbia River
Maritime Museum displays a rich repository of artifacts
from the heyday of the fishery. Within its collection, two
black-and-white photos stand out. The first shows a
grizzled man in a wet fedora lifting an 82 1/2-pound
chinook salmon. The fish stretches from his sagging
shoulders to the tangle of net at his feet.

These were the “June Hogs,” the giant royal Chinook that
formed the basis of the early fishery. In late spring and
early summer, these enormous fish began their run, climbing
the falls at Cascades and Celilo, and continuing undaunted
to the very headwaters of the river in the Arrow Lakes of
British Columbia. Yet when the final gate of the Grand
Coulee Dam closed in 1941, it sealed the June Hogs’ fate.
With a height of 343 feet, the dam was considered too tall
for fish ladders. It closed off 1,000 river miles of salmon
habitat, a third of the upper Columbia. Still the
indomitable June Hogs held on, spawning in the tailwaters
below the dam until the mid-1950s, when they followed the
passenger pigeon to extinction.

“They made drastic attempts to save the species,” says Hobe
Kytr, museum educator. “None were successful because they
hadn’t a clue to their biology”

The other photo shows a dozen men knee-deep in water
struggling to haul in a net filled to biblical proportions.
The caption reads: “Haul Seining on Sand Island, August 22,
1921.” For this method, teams of draft horses pulled nearly
half-mile-long seines onto sandbars in the rivermouth. This
particular crew caught 30 tons in one haul, 94 tons in one
day. Yet the total catch that year for all five species
(some 15.5 million pounds) was just half of the chinook
catch at the peak of the fishery in 1883.

That year 39 canneries were pumping out canned salmon on
the Columbia, 22 in Astoria alone. The canneries packed
more salmon here than anyplace else in the world and sold
their product on nearly every continent. They printed
colorful labels and devised clever brand names to appeal to
their varied markets. These included Pine Burr, Bear Brand,
Bumble Bee, Esquimaux, Bon Bon, Rosebud, even Stonewall
Jackson Brand (I suppose for the salmon that never
surrenders). At its peak, the industry and ancillary
businesses employed some 80,000 people. Even during the
heart of the depression in 1933–the year the Rock
Island Dam became the first to cross the Columbia–the
fishery generated $10 million in revenues.

Wearing white cotton gloves, Kytr retrieves a thin volume
from the museum archives and carries it toward a table as
if it were the Dead Sea Scrolls. The title is “The History
and Development of the Fisheries of the Columbia River,”
more commonly known as the Craig and Hacker Report.
Published in 1938 by Joseph Craig and Robert Hacker, two
biologists with the former U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, the
document is considered the seminal treatise on the problems
of the Columbia River salmon. Everything from fishing
pressure to dam-caused mortality is in there, says Kytr,
tapping the report with a gloved finger.

“About the salmon in Idaho, the questions being asked now
should have been considered in the 50s and 60s,” Kytr says.
“All the data were available. Yet dams were put in without
fish passages or with inadequate fish passages. The
decision was made 30 years ago. They traded salmon for
irrigation and electricity.”

When Bill Kirk, archaeologist, former hodad, and rabid
steelhead fisherman steps out of his 1958 New Moon house
trailer on the banks of the North Fork Nehalem River, a
certain gleam shines in his eyes. He wears green oilskins,
black rubber boots, and his blonde hair and beard are
matted from the rain. He looks as if he has been standing
in a river for a few hours, which he has. Earlier that day
he hooked and fought two nice steelhead, hence the gleam.

He pulls the two fish from a refrigerator beneath a nearby
shed and lays them on the ground. The female, known as a
hen, glistens silvery in the wet grass, about 27 inches
long. She is a “bright” fish, Kirk explains, not long from
the sea. The other fish is smaller, darker, with a pinkish
lateral band that denotes a spawning male. Usually the
darker the fish, the less desirable to most anglers, though
Kirk seems pleased. I ask how long he fought them.

“I don’t really know,” he replies, “When you catch a fish,
time stands still.”

Both fish have been fin-clipped; the brand they receive
from the hatchery. Wild steelhead populations have dropped
so precipitously that anglers are no longer allowed to keep
them but instead must release any caught unharmed. Unlike
salmon, steelhead can survive to spawn two or three times.
But steelhead favor similar spawning grounds as chinook and
coho salmon and, like these species, have suffered
dramatically from habitat loss and degradation. Young
steelhead spend up to three years in fresh water, so they
must have streams that are cool, well oxygenated and rich
in aquatic and terrestrial insects.

Logging hits them especially hard. Early loggers built
splash dams to help transport logs downstream, scouring the
streambed in the process. Modern clearcutting also destroys
riparian vegetation and shade trees, increasing the water
temperature and decreasing available food for young fish.
The ensuing erosion often buries spawning gravel with silt.

Two small creeks enter the North Fork not 100 yards from
Kirk’s home, each draining separate draws in the mountains
beyond. In 1979 loggers clear-cut the south side and for
nearly five years, Kirk says, its crystal stream ran like
coffee. When it finally began to clear, the loggers cut the
north side and the second stream began pumping silt into
the river.

Kirk wants to show me a nearby hatchery, so we hop in the
car and follow a meandering one-lane blacktop that
parallels the river. Even in the cold rain, pickups are
parked at each bridge, while their owners wade into the
dark swirling water, casting continuously. At the hatchery,
tiny coho salmon, about three inches long, swim in a series
of narrow concrete tanks. They hit the surface like
raindrops when Bill and I walk by. That behavior is part of
their problem.

In the late 1930s when the first big dams were constructed
on the Columbia, Congress passed the Mitchell Act, which
funded the building of hatcheries to compensate for lost
habitat. At that time, fishery science was still evolving,
and hatchery managers naturally concentrated on stocks that
prospered in hatcheries, if not in streams. In many rivers,
including the North Fork, managers decided to replace wild
runs with hatchery fish, stringing an electric weir across
the stream to capture native spawners. The endangered Snake
River sockeye was the target of a similar enterprise in

The “put-and-take” approach forms the basis of both the
commercial and sport salmon and steelhead fisheries today.
But critics say the hatchery fish not only mask the
critical declines of wild runs but actively harm them by
competing for food and space and by transmitting diseases.
Perhaps more important, they threaten to dilute the genetic
makeup of the wild fish by interbreeding.

These wild genes are the gold mine of the resource, some
advocates say, placing wild fish several steps up the
evolutionary ladder from their hatchery brethren. Wild fish
are more aggressive as a result. Percentagewise, more wild
fish survive the rigors of salmon life to spawn. Idaho, for
example, pumps 22 million smolts into the Snake River each
year, but too few return to even provide the hatcheries
with brood stock. The cost of these fish has been estimated
at more than $1,000 apiece.

Bill Kirk stands by a tank of coho smolts and tries to get
them to rise for my camera. They’ve done this three or four
times now, a conditioned response from hatchery workers
flinging fish chow pellets at them. They learn that when a
shadow passes overhead, food comes from above. In the
ocean, this response gives gulls, cormorants, and other
low-flying, fish-eating birds a field day.

The bottom line, Hobe Kytr says, is that hatchery fish are

The road to Skamokawa hugs the shores of the Columbia
River, winding past islands of pilings where old canneries,
docks and fish houses stood. Gas stations or any other
signs of modern commerce are few and far between. In the
town center of Skamokawa a group of small shops and stores
seem to cling to both the water and the land. None are
open. Most look abandoned. Only a small roadhouse/truck
stop and museum dedicated to river life on the Columbia
show any signs of life.

A faded Bristol Bay sailboat rudder points the way to Kent
and Irene Martin’s place, the same land that Kent’s
great-grandfather, John Strom of Sweden, laid claim to in
1873. For years it has been an ideal place for them. Kent
grosses as much as $60,000 from the river in the best
years. As the runs declined he diversified, fishing the
healthier Bristol Bay salmon runs in Alaska. Last year he
grossed just over $3,000 from the Columbia River, not
enough to pay the insurance on the boat nor to make
repairs. Five years ago he says he could have sold his
boat, nets and license for $150,000. He doubts it would
bring a tenth of that today. If it weren’t for his disabled
mother who lives nearby, Kent Martin says he would have left
long ago for British Columbia or Alaska.

“My rage is that the fishing industry has been the only one
that has suffered from this,” Martin says. “For everyone
else it has been business as usual.”

The NMFS Draft Recovery Plan, which recommended buying out
the fishermen, is particularly nettlesome. Written by a
group of scientists known as the “Lucky Seven,” the plan also
called for developing “selective” gear types, such as fish
traps, which theoretically would allow fishermen to release
protected fish unharmed. Unlike hatchery steelhead,
however, hatchery salmon are not marked by fin removal.
Fishermen say one has to be an ichthyologist or an Indian to
tell them apart.

Fish traps, long loathed by gill-netters, were banned from
the Columbia in 1948. Another option that the panel
considered, then rejected, was drawing down the four Snake
River reservoirs to riverbed level for six months each
spring to allow young smolts to proceed unimpeded to the
Columbia. The biologist admitted that drawing down the
river to natural levels would produce excellent survival
rates but would have a “drastic” effect on irrigation,
barge operation, and power generation, activities that for
the most part would be foregone for the period. Kent Martin
and his fellow gillnetters call it “ballot-box biology” and
call its progenitors “waterless gear experts” and
“biostitutes,” among other things.

The most galling aspect of the plan to the Martins,
however, was the establishment of a five-member scientific
board to oversee the implementation of the recovery plan.
The Salmon Oversight Committee would consist of “scientific
experts” compensated at “executive” levels for a
“prestigious professional experience.” The Lucky Seven did
not rescue themselves from consideration.

“This is an example of the bureaucratic and academic
ivory-tower mentality that dispatches an entire way of life
for local communities along the Columbia and then spends
five pages about job security for themselves,” Kent Martin

The social impacts of the declining fishery most concern
Irene Martin. An Episcopal minister and local librarian,
she has witnessed the suffering first hand. She cites the
example of a daycare center her church opened a few years
ago. They created a sliding scale to calculate the fees: 20
percent for above-average income families, 40 percent for
middle-income families, and 40 percent for below-average
income families. Last year, 94 percent of the children came
from low-income families. So many kids showed up hungry the
center started a breakfast program. Seven of the kids were
diagnosed as anemic, requiring special diets. Now she is
seeking grant money just to keep the center open.

“You’re looking at severe social problems. Plain stark
poverty,” Martin says, barely controlling her anger. “No
one is addressing these community needs. No one is
addressing what is happening to the children:”

A hundred miles upstream from Skamokawa, the Bonneville Dam
stretches across the river in three giant sections. It is a
National Historic Landmark, the first bulwark of the
greatest hydropower system in the world, and a graying
monument to our ability to create and to destroy. In the
bowels of the newest generating station, the floor shudders
with power. Not from the eight giant turbines painted
tangelo orange, but from 624 tons of water flowing beneath
one’s feet. Enough water passes by each rotor to fill an
Olympic swimming pool in six seconds. Despite expensive
screens and bypass systems, some 80 percent of the
downstream smolt are either forced over the spillway, where
they become easy prey for sqawfish, or are sucked through
the turbines like sardines in a 40-foot Cuisinart.

Despite the seeming invincibility of these structures and
the powerful lobbies behind them, some cracks are spreading
through their facade. The aluminum industry, which uses a
third of the region’s hydropower at greatly subsidized
prices, is reeling from a worldwide glut of aluminum and
increased recycling. Bonneville Power Authority, which
markets power from the dams, lost $750 million over the
last two years and may lose $800 million this year. A
Portland-based environmental group recently proposed
eliminating 11 major dams in the system along with the
subsidized aluminum industry, a plan they say will not only
save salmon but create a power surplus.

Last year Idaho and numerous environmental groups took NMFS
to court over an agency ruling that the dams posed “no
jeopardy” to the endangered fish stocks, which could lead
to court-ordered drawdowns. Meanwhile, the scientific
community has thoroughly blasted the draft recovery plan,
which is now undergoing revision and should be released for
public comment this spring.

Walking through the powerhouse, I touch the cool concrete
of the wall. Despite its colorful yellow paint, the surface
is pocked with tiny holes and imperfections and the paint
is peeled in spots as if there were a leak somewhere. It
reminds me of a comment I heard days earlier at the
Columbia River Maritime Museum. On my way out I stopped by
the museum gift shop. A young grandmotherly type was
working the register–an opportunity to gauge the
woman-on-the-street vote. I asked her what she thought
should be done to save the salmon. “Well,” she replied
softly, “they say the life expectancy of concrete is only
100 years:” She allowed herself a mischievous smile. 

Future of Fossil Fuels

Estimated fossil fuel reserves vary widely but are probably at least 30 to 50 years for oil, 60 to 120 for natural gas, and 130 to 200 for coal. What makes these reserves difficult to estimate is their increasing use by developing nations. Since 1900, use of fossil fuels has increased four times as fast as the world population. The United States has 3% of world oil reserves, yet depends on oil for 40% of its energy needs.

Globally, commercial energy sources are 40% oil, 27% coal, 22% natural gas, 6% nuclear, and 5% for other resources.

-From Green Essentials (Mercury House, 1994) by Geoffrey C. Saign. Copyright ©1994 by Geoffrey C. Saign