NARRATOR: More than a hundred million are released into the Columbia and its tributaries each year.
Yet, clearly something’s not working. Many Columbia Basin salmon populations are already extinct and thirteen more are listed as endangered or threatened.
From one perspective, hatcheries are evidence of our willingness and capacity to help an animal in trouble. From another, they’re evidence of just how much trouble this animal is in.
Over millennia, the annual migration of tens of millions of salmon became a defining event for all manner of life in the Pacific Northwest.
Now, it’s their absence that’s shaping the region.
The story of salmon is the story of a creature at once resilient and fragile, manipulated and wild.
It’s one of the nature stories of our time.
Like many Northwesterners, novelist David James Duncan’s bond with salmon runs so deep it defines “home.”
DAVID DUNCAN: I was moving down through the creek bed, disobeying every rule my grandma had set down for me. And there was a log, cantilevered out over a deep pool. I had no idea what I’d find, but I just felt like, “I gotta go lie on this log.” Six years old. So I’m lying on the log… and this big old hook-jawed male Coho comes up. It’s green and red. It’s got this glaring unblinking eye. It’s just looking right into the heart of me. And, to me, that became like a compass, like, I want to live where these guys live. I want to be in the presence of this mysterious creature.
Off camera voice: Don’t forget that little one …
“Suds” Soderstrom lives hundreds of miles downstream from David Duncan.
Salmon figure prominently in his idea of home, too.
“SUDS” SODERSTROM: The Pacific Northwest is salmon. It’s the history of this area. You wouldn’t believe how many livelihoods this has supported, just this one little station, and there used to be fish stations all up and down the river. Each one was like a little community. My family’s been doing it since 1872. I have a son and some grandsons that like the water, too, you know. There’s things I want to teach those kids.
The lineage of some fishing families extends even further.
Salmon nourished the region’s Native American communities for thousands of years.
While much of that biological abundance is gone, a rich cultural heritage endures.
DANIELLE SEARCY: If it was just about something to eat you could just go to the grocery store. It’s not that at all. It’s being out here and working hard, staying with the customs and traditions as much as you can in this world. It’s not just the fish.
For most of their life, salmon travel the North Pacific, foraging the ocean’s rich food supplies.
When a mysterious inner signal draws them back to the coast... they gather at the mouths of their respective home rivers…before turning upstream.
They come in waves, obsessively seeking the streams – often the very gravel beds – where they were born.
JIM MARTIN: There were major, major salmon runs 12 months out of the year. As soon as the spring Chinook were done, the summer Chinook were there, then the fall Chinook, then the winter Cohoes, then the steelhead. It was a never-ending highway of salmon.
DAVID DUNCAN: They would come in, in such great numbers that they… I mean, they changed the chemistry of the water. It’s this orgy of abundance.
For some, home is the coastal rain forest…
For others, it’s a high desert canyon…
And for Idaho’s endangered sockeye, home is deep in the continent’s rugged alpine interior.
Past eight giant dams…
Countless false turns…
Idaho sockeye remain insistent on the unique chemical signature of Redfish Lake – a cold water womb in the Sawtooth Mountains, named for the colorful fish that once spawned here in the tens of thousands.
After excavating a gravel nest… they set the next generation on its way.
Soon after, they die.
DAVID DUNCAN: It’s amazing what they do in order to reach these birth houses of these beautiful wilderness streams, eastern Oregon, eastern Washington, Idaho streams. They give up their lives to put thousands of these little glowing red balls into the stone spine of this continent. It’s this luminous ball. It looks backlit, it looks like the sun. In cold stone, cold water, they find a fire that creates life.
For the Columbia Basin, that fire wasn’t just figurative. It was transformative.
The Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness in Central Idaho is the heart of the largest roadless area in the lower 48.
There are no dams blocking streams, no chainsaws felling trees, no active mine shafts puncturing rock.
Humans haven’t left much of a mark here. But salmon have.
Rancher and river guide Jerry Myers lives on the edge of this vast wilderness, near the Salmon River.
JERRY MYERS: I was born on a small farm and ranch in central Idaho; grew up lovin’ the outdoors of course and workin’ in the outdoors. I’ve lived on salmon streams my whole life. You understand by living out here that things are connected. This little creek’s called Cabin Creek and it runs through my back yard. This water comes from these big mountains. Snow melts, soaks into the mountains, it slowly comes out in the form of springs that keep these little creeks running year round. This water’s pure enough I could drink it but it really doesn’t hold much in the way of nutrients because it runs through granite and fairly sterile soils. Life here needed a kickstart. And that kickstart was provided by salmon. For thousands of years, the biggest component of the food base for this area was salmon, and it tied the rich nutrients of the Pacific Ocean, to these mountains in Idaho. It’s probably easier to name the organisms that aren’t directly affected by salmon than it is to name the ones that are, because everything’s affected.
Even salmon that escape predators nourish life.
Dead adult salmon provide food for small invertebrates that in turn feed newborn salmon.
The benefits of hundreds of millions of pounds of marine nutrients swimming upriver every year aren’t confined to the edges of rivers and streams… or even to animals.
MYERS: Bears will come down and eat that carcass, and then bears will go up into the woods, and do what bears do in the woods. And by that mechanism, they actually spread nutrient up these mountains. So you can find salmon-generated marine nutrients in these big ponderosa trees around here that are way away from the streambed. But they were spread up there by animals.
Throughout the Northwest, wild salmon have been the currency of biological richness.
And now, that wealth is slipping, or already gone.
MYERS: The rancher that used to have this ranch said he would lay awake at night, kept awake by the splashing salmon that were down in the creek. My wife and I have been here for nine years and we’ve yet to see a salmon.
For most Northwesterners, wild salmon are either a memory or a story. Neither feeds the land.
DUNCAN: Wild salmon are not snail darters. Salmon are this unbelievably charismatic and biologically necessary creature. And salmon are in trouble – as much as any species of plant and animal in the Pacific Northwest. If this creature is removed from the tapestry, the tapestry will unravel.
Incredibly, the unraveling of the Columbia River’s tapestry has been assisted by a century of efforts toward salmon conservation.
In response to evidence that careless development of river systems was killing fish, well-intentioned people started removing the fish from the river.
And the fate of salmon has literally been in our hands ever since.
More than 150 years ago, European Americans arrived in the Pacific Northwest eager to exploit the seemingly unlimited supply of beaver pelts, gold, timber… and salmon.
The annual salmon catch skyrocketed when innovations in canning made it possible to ship to markets all over the world.
Over-harvest. Habitat loss. It wasn’t long before production at every cannery in the region was in decline.
Salmon, and everyone who depended on them, needed help.
Experiments with controlled reproduction of salmon suggested they could be mass-produced in hatcheries – a kind of fish factory.
DAN BOTTOM: And there was this tremendous excitement because they were able to get ninety percent of the fish, the eggs, to survive whereas in nature just a few percent were surviving. So there was this immediate assumption that for every fish that survived in the hatchery that would not have survived in nature you were gonna have another fish back. And as a result there were these wildly optimistic accounts about how much more productive the water would be than the land.
Although still speculative, the dream of unlimited hatchery production was a convenient alternative to debating regulations about who gets to catch fish and how many.
DAN BOTTOM: Essentially there was this belief that hatcheries were a way to have our cake and eat it too.
Water was put to work without concern for impacts on fish. Rivers large and small were straightened, diverted, and impounded.
Over 400 dams now control the Columbia and its tributaries. It’s one of the most hydroelectrically developed river systems in the world.
Many dams were built with fish ladders – artificial rapids that allow fish to pass around the dam. But there were some notable exceptions, such as Idaho’s Hells Canyon dams, which blocked passage to the entire Upper Snake River, including desert streams as far away as Northern Nevada.
And the Grand Coulee, which blocked passage to the spawning grounds of the famous “June Hogs,” 100-pound Chinook salmon that were among the largest on the planet…
“SUDS” SODERSTROM: If you go above these huge dams and you think, God, what this could have been and what it was. It’s just gravel bed after gravel bed after gravel bed. You just could imagine how much fish could spawn in these areas and they can’t get there. When they closed the gates on Grand Coulee, over a third of the spawning area of the Columbia basin was totally blocked off. That was the end of it. Five years later, the run was dead.
The loss of each run is bigger than just a given length of river.
Lose a stream, lose the adaptations salmon evolved in response to specific conditions there.
All that diversity is what enabled salmon to survive, and thrive, throughout the region.
Today, the natural productivity of the Columbia watershed has been replaced by over 170 hatchery programs.
DAN BOTTOM: The whole idea of the hatchery is to produce a lot of fish, and do it just like we would an industrial product. The hatchery is built around the notion that we developed early on, that we’re going to make the optimum fish, we’re going to release it at the right size, we’re gonna release at the right time, we’re gonna control the conditions so that it survives all of the vagaries of that freshwater environment. Unfortunately, the real basis of the productivity of salmon is their genetic diversity. And the problem is through the process of rearing fish in a controlled environment generation after generation you lose that genetic diversity through interbreeding or through selection in the hatchery or both.
It’s a bizarre twist of fate that our takeover of salmon reproduction has left them more vulnerable than ever to changing conditions in their environment.
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