So far this month, 50 adult Chinook have crossed Bonneville Dam — a 200′ tall first step they each take before diverging on their respective journeys upstream, into the near and far reaches of the Columbia River basin.
Extending from continental shelf to continental divide, encompassing ecosystems as diverse as alpine forests and desert canyons, the Columbia and its tributaries were once the most productive Chinook salmon habitat on Earth. Annual runs of 10–30 million wild fish were nourishment for everything — and everyone. Throughout the region and for thousands of years, indigenous peoples have performed rituals that celebrate the salmon’s return. These “First Salmon” ceremonies also affirm the community’s reciprocal responsibility to care for salmon and their environment — honor the gifts of clean water and abundance, or lose them.
In the summer of 2015, two seemingly separate events within the Columbia watershed were in fact significantly connected. In July, 300,000 sockeye salmon died at Bonneville Dam when the Columbia became fatally warm. Two months later and 900 miles upstream, Congressional legislation added 250,000 acres of designated wilderness to a network of more than three million acres of roadless lands and protected waters in the central Idaho mountains. Along with the upper Salmon River and its tributaries, this high-elevation habitat could prove critically important as stream temperatures warm throughout the Columbia Basin — a potential refuge for salmon, if they can get there.
Eight dams stand between the promise of this new Boulder-White Clouds wilderness and salmon beginning their journey up the Columbia-Snake-Salmon River system today. This gauntlet of concrete is a tiny portion of more than 400 dams within the entire watershed — what was the world’s greatest Chinook river has become its most engineered. To rationalize this industrialization of the Columbia, we also industrialized its fecundity — protecting salmon now means producing them. A network of over 200 hatcheries manufacture about 150 million juvenile salmon a year, responsible for over 80% of the approximately one million adults that return annually. Based on 19th century agricultural science, the hatchery paradigm — in which production systems are optimized by carefully controlling the facility’s conditions — is almost perfectly antithetical to the environmental dynamism salmon need to express their special genius, the life history diversity that propelled them to colonize and transform nearly every freshet and backwater from ocean bottoms to mountaintops. One hundred and fifty years ago, fisheries scientists posited that since careless development of river systems was killing the fish, we should remove the fish from the river — and salmon have literally been in our hands ever since.
Today, federal salmon recovery plans are built on a monstrous suite of creative, expensive, but ultimately ineffective alternatives to salmon swimming up and downstream. We supplant traditional cycles of reproduction and death by raising salmon in concrete tanks, piping them from reservoirs behind dams, implanting them with tracking devices, transporting them in trucks, feeding them in offshore pens, harvesting them in labs, pasteurizing and scattering their remains in forests and streams starved for missing nutrients. Nine hundred miles from the ocean, almost seven thousand feet in elevation, exhausted and battered and just short of their life’s destination, central Idaho’s salmon are scooped from the river and trucked 140 miles to a multimillion dollar warehouse in the desert. Their eggs are stripped, their milt is milked, and the next generation of icons begins its life in a “nest” of Ziploc bags, aerators, and PVC piping. In flourishing black marker, a whiteboard sign on the wall calls out from the virtual world: “Welcome Home”.
In the real world, we spend almost $1 billion per year on Columbia River salmon recovery yet populations have declined more than 90%, over a dozen stocks are extinct or endangered, a growing body of scientific research highlights the failures of the hatchery system, fewer and fewer salmon are born and die in the wild, and lethally warm water temperatures behind Columbia and Snake River dams could cripple a century of recovery efforts. It’s time for something different.
At Ecotrust, we believe “something different” will be a restoration and management paradigm based on true respect — for the integrity of rivers and streams, for our commitments to supporting Native communities, for place-based economies, and for the salmon themselves. Anything less will continue to result in mass die-offs in chains of too-warm reservoirs, a broken pact between salmon and people to always provide for each other.
We know that fulfilling the promise of our newest wilderness as a future climate shield — a “Noah’s Ark” for salmon — will require challenging some of our oldest assumptions about salmon and rivers. To that end, beginning this summer, we will follow the salmon’s journey from the ocean to Idaho with a series of communications related to the urgent need and compelling arguments for one of the largest, practically achievable fisheries recovery projects on Earth: restoring self-sustaining populations of Columbia River salmon by removing outdated dams and re-establishing the correspondence between the mountains and the sea.