For the first time in 80 years, salmon are swimming in the upper Columbia River. Whether that plays a role in salmon recovery throughout the region or is simply a temporary and ceremonial achievement remains to be seen, but the event last week was significant for the iconic Northwest species.
Since Grand Coulee Dam was constructed along the upper Columbia in north central Washington in the 1930s — followed by Chief Joseph Dam about 50 miles downstream in the 1950s — salmon have not been able to return to their traditional spawning grounds. Both dams were built without fish ladders or other means for the salmon to return, effectively killing off the species in the area.
Last week, members of the Colville Confederated Tribes released 30 fish above the Chief Joseph Dam as part of a multiyear plan. “This is a good step in the right direction,” tribal council member Rodney Cawston said, according to The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review. “To right something that has been wrong for 80 years now.”
Tribal member Crystal Conant told OPB: “We haven’t had our salmon, and we haven’t had our ways. For 80 years, this has been taken from my ancestors. To be a part of the first people to put it back, it’s hard to even talk about without getting emotional.”
Despite all the discussion in recent years about salmon preservation throughout the Columbia River system, it can be difficult to comprehend the extent of the species’ role in the Northwest.
Grainy photos and videos from generations past show Native Americans reaping the abundant harvest as their ancestors had centuries before, and the Northwest Power and Conservation Council reports: “Based on late 19th-century cannery records and Indian accounts, it is believed that some 10 million to 16 million adult salmon and steelhead returned to the river each year to spawn prior to about 1850.” Now, the return rarely tops 2 million per year.
Part of the reason for that is a series of dams throughout the Columbia River Basin. Those dams have provided cheap, reliable hydroelectricity and have fueled economic expansion throughout the region, but they have come with a cost.
“The salmon spirit, he’s been missing here for a while,” Colville tribal council member Darnell Sam said. “No matter what is thrown at us, or thrown at them, they seem to survive and they seem to keep coming.”
Now, tribal members believe, technology makes a sustainable salmon run on the upper Columbia a possibility. Officials say the area is fertile habitat for salmon spawning.
Among the advancements is the Whooshh fish passage — essentially a salmon cannon that boosts the fish over dams, made by Whooshh Innovations of Seattle. Early research suggests the system is more efficient than either traditional fish ladders or capturing and trucking salmon around dams, as has been done in some places.
For now, the return of fish above the Chief Joseph Dam is merely an experiment. But it could hold promise for the future of salmon in the Northwest and, by extension, the future of orcas that rely on the fish as their primary food source. It also holds promise for a culture that has existed in the region for thousands of years.
As Virginia Redstar, a Nez Perce and Wenatchee band member, said: “Our culture was put on hold. I just want people to know. I want people to remember. We’re here.”