Feature May 12, 2015
The Great Migration
Pacific Salmon and Steelhead Fight for Their Lives

In the beginning, the waters ran red with the sleek forms and flashing tails of Idaho’s anadromous fish, their numbers so great it was said you could walk across the backs of the salmon to cross the stream. Each fish had traveled thousands of miles, navigating the gauntlet of waterfalls, log jams, weirs, shallow waters and rockslides, just for the one chance to flicker through the streams of their birth and spawn the next generation of their species.

Eventually, bears, birds, otters, foxes and wolves feasted on the carcasses of spawned-out male and female salmon, thus spreading the marine-rich nutrients this once silvery denizen of the deep brought with it from the waters of the Pacific, the Aleutian Islands, the Kamchatka Peninsula, the Bering Sea. In this way, the ocean came to the high alpine landscapes of Idaho and Montana. It washed across the alpine deserts of Nevada and spread deep into the Canadian Rockies within the provinces of Alberta and Calgary. All of it, fed by the great Columbia River Basin watershed—more than 13,000 river miles covering 260,000 square miles of North American continent and encompassing six American states and two Canadian provinces.

The Columbia River was once home to the single largest anadromous fish runs in the world—fish born in freshwater who migrate to saltwater for most of their adult lives and then back to freshwater to spawn.

Historic runs in the late 1800s have been estimated to be between 10 and 15 million fish. Consider that as recently as 145 years ago—the year construction began on the Brooklyn Bridge—an average 13 million salmon and steelhead were swimming upstream from the mouth of the Columbia River. Several million of them turned right at the Snake River and then left up the Salmon River to complete a journey of over 900 miles, climbing more than 6,500 feet in elevation through rapids and up waterfalls to reach their natal streams and lakes in Idaho. This is not legend. It is fact.

Smaller, though still healthy, salmon and steelhead runs occurred as recently as the 1950s. These life-sustaining runs were essentially year-round, extending from March through October, with distinct spring, then summer, then fall “pulses” or runs of fish. Steelhead (the sea-run form of rainbow trout) runs even extended through the winter.

Some oldtimers—like Jerry Myers, a third-generation Idahoan from a ranching family outside Lewiston, Idaho—still remember it. “I’ll never forget the first time I saw a huge fish in a small stream on the ranch,” recalled Myers. “It was a returning Chinook salmon and I still remember the power of that sound. It is one of the things instilled in my DNA now.”

High in the Sawtooth Valley, Redfish Lake—named for the abundance of spawning sockeye salmon that once colored its waters red—saw estimated annual runs of 25,000 to 35,000 returning adult sockeye. Populations of migrating sockeye also once thrived in Alturas, Pettit, Stanley and Yellowbelly lakes. The waters were teeming with so many fish that there was talk of building a cannery at Redfish Lake.

Beginning in 1937 with the construction of the Bonneville Dam 39 miles east of Portland, Oregon, the Columbia and Lower Snake Rivers underwent a transformation during the ensuing 50 years as multiple hydroelectric projects were completed, many between 1961 and 1975. The hydroelectric dams were huge feats of modern engineering, often taking 10 or more years to complete and were built with the intent of providing power, and, in some cases, flood control and navigation for the growing populations of the West. The Lower Granite Dam just west of Lewiston was the last constructed (1975) in this stretch. As each Columbia watershed dam came online, increasingly accurate fish counts were implemented. In the early 1950s, for example, before most of the dams were built, counts for returning sockeye salmon at Bonneville Dam averaged over 190,000 fish.

Hundreds of coho salmon fry, or parr, distinguished by the vertical stripes along their sides, feed in a side channel. After hatching, coho spend approximately one year in freshwater before smolting and out-migrating to the sea. Photo by Paul Vecsei.

By 1986, the same year the last solitary coho salmon swam into the Snake River in Idaho and then disappeared, the counts told a different story. The numbers had dropped to a staggering 15 sockeye at Lower Granite Dam, which was the last of eight hydropower dams the fish now had to bypass before swimming up Idaho’s free-flowing Salmon River to reach their home at Redfish Lake. By 1989, the count had dropped to just two returning sockeye salmon at Lower Granite Dam.

Fish count numbers tell a compelling story about the plight of Idaho’s anadromous fish. In the words of the American Fisheries Society, “Populations of anadromous fishes in Idaho declined precipitously following the construction of hydroelectric dams in the Snake and Columbia rivers. The effect was disastrous for all anadromous species.”

In particular, coho salmon were extirpated from the Snake River
by 1986. Idaho’s sockeye salmon almost disappeared and were declared under extreme risk of extinction by authority of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1991. Snake River spring/summer and fall Chinook salmon were classified as threatened with extinction by the ESA the following year, and Idaho’s steelhead were listed as threatened in 1997.

Today, the numbers are still grim. It is estimated that 35 percent of Pacific salmon stocks in the Columbia River Basin have been lost and 40 percent are now endangered or threatened.

Mapping the Journey

The story of Idaho’s anadromous fish is one of mythic proportions and strength. It begins with a 900-mile marathon sprint. It ends with death, decay and, eventually, rebirth; all of which could provide fodder for the best of Hollywood blockbusters. But, at its heart, it is a simple tale of a fish born in the mountains and its journey to the sea and back. This great migration from freshwater to saltwater and back, and the physiological changes that take place to enable it, is what defines anadromous fish.

Born in freshwater, juvenile salmon have a biological clock that starts ticking as soon as they begin their journey to the ocean. These small fry need to undergo changes that will allow them to adapt from freshwater to saltwater creatures. What’s more, timing is essential and they need to arrive at the ocean at the same time their bodies have completed this transformation. This process is called smolting, and, as soon they begin their outward migration, fry are known as smolts.

In an energy-conserving adaptation illustrating the incredible evolution of the species, most anadromous fish smolts simply allow the river to carry them downstream, tail first, watching the waters of their natal streams disappear from view. This is one of the most vulnerable stages of a young salmon or steelhead’s life cycle. Traditionally, the spring runoff assisted smolts in their downstream migration, rushing them toward their ocean destination in less than three weeks. But with a series of dams now slowing the Columbia and Snake rivers, the journey currently can take six weeks or more.

While the dams themselves pose obstacles, court-ordered water spills enacted in 2006 and other juvenile fish passage systems have improved dam passage immensely. A larger threat remains the large slackwater reservoirs behind the dams. Increased smolt mortality can be due to rising water temperatures, high turbidity and increased predator opportunities from species thriving in the now warmer and slower moving water.

Perhaps most detrimental to the smolts is that they must expend precious energy to swim across large reservoirs on a journey to the ocean in which, historically, they were swept by river currents. The challenge is compounded by the demands of osmoregulation—body chemistry changes that enable the fish to move from freshwater to saltwater (or vice versa). Many have simply not adapted to this new—in an evolutionary sense—reality of their reproductive cycle.

While in the ocean, smolts develop into silvery machines of speed and agility, using celestial navigation, by means of natural or polarized light, and following the ocean currents in search of food, sometimes for thousands of miles. Pacific salmon and steelhead may spend from as few as one to two years to as many as eight years at sea and grow from 5-inch fry into 24- to 45-inch adults weighing anywhere from 8 to 80 pounds or more.

And then, at some point in their ocean life—when exactly is still a mystery to science—the salmon turn home, gathering en masse at the mouth of the river. After having survived the ocean’s perils and the predation trap from sea lions and other predators at the estuaries, the returning adult spawners undergo even more radical body chemistry and physiological changes in their transition from saltwater foragers to freshwater reproducing organisms. Many species begin to take on the bright red color of sexually mature fish, or the hooked jaws, called kype, of spawning males. Salmon and steelhead stop feeding as they enter freshwater, and because their stomach is no longer needed, it begins to disintegrate, leaving more room for the reproductive organs and developing eggs and sperm, or milt. Ocean feeding is essential to anadromous fish because throughout their freshwater journey they must live off the stored fat in their tissues, literally consuming themselves in their migration back to the spawning grounds where they were born.

Scientists still can’t explain the homing mechanism of a salmon or steelhead. Theories abound about the use of polarized light patterns, the earth’s magnetism, olfactory cues or river landmarks to guide them home. Recent research even suggests that Idaho’s tiny salmon and steelhead fry develop the unique and specific chemical imprint of the waters of their birth before beginning their journey to the sea. This is an astounding thought, given the many twists and turns returning adult salmon and steelhead may have to make, upstream, into and past tributaries, irrigation canals and main stem rivers on their journey home—and this, after many years spent roaming thousands upon thousands of miles of open ocean.

Studies have shown that even blind salmon can find their way home. Through PIT-tagging—the process of embedding a tiny radio frequency device that transmits a unique code to readers along river bottoms—individual fish can be tracked along their journey. Mark Davidson, director of the Idaho Water Project at Trout Unlimited and a 13-year veteran of anadromous fish conservation, explained that PIT-tagging has helped illuminate specific fish migratory and habitat behavior. “We’ve seen a Chinook salmon poke his nose into one tributary and then back out of the stream shortly after, only to return to the spawning beds of his birth,” Davidson said with admiration. “That’s a finely tuned homing instinct.”

Funding Recovery

The politics and policies of anadromous fish recovery are a complex web entangling much of the Pacific Northwest. The ESA-listing of Idaho’s salmon and steelhead touches everybody from power users, irrigators, river navigators, ranchers and farmers, to salmon protectors, recreationists, commercial fishermen and federal, state and tribal agencies.

In truth, there are so many agencies and groups to aid their recovery that it is nearly impossible to get a substantiated number on dollars spent per fish. But the numbers are high. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) alone spends $28 million annually. Mike Edmondson, a fisheries biologist and program manager at Idaho’s Office of Species Conservation managing Idaho’s recovery efforts for over nine years, estimates that his office spends $8-$12 million per year and points out that his number does not include IDFG funds, federal funding from the Mitchell Act Funds, Pacific Coast Salmon Recovery Funds or Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) fish accords. The latter was an agreement signed in 2008 in which BPA (a part of the U.S. Department of Energy that markets wholesale electrical power from 31 federal hydro projects in the Columbia River Basin and other power plants) guarantees money toward anadromous fish recovery. In fact, the BPA Columbia Basin Fish & Wildlife Program, which the BPA fish accords fall under, spans a four-state region and is the largest environmental program of its kind in the world, with an annual budget of around $270 million (2013). The irony that these funds originate from the hydropower system which threatens anadromous fish survival is not lost on those working closely on recovery efforts.

The state of Idaho’s approximately $35-$40 million annual spend also doesn’t include the tens of millions of dollars spent by the other states crucial to the path of anadromous fish recovery—Washington and Oregon. Nor does it include dollars spent by tribal agencies related to the $25 million settlement known as the Snake River Basin Adjudication (SRBA). Combine all those dollars and it is a staggering figure equaling hundreds of millions of dollars.

And with only 757 adult returning sockeye salmon counted at Lower Granite Dam in 2013, that equates to a lot of dollars per fish.

Money aside, consider the fact that over 106.4 million hatchery-raised Chinook salmon are released in a typical year and only 149,926 adult fish return (2013). Put another way, this means more than 106.3 million Chinook salmon do not make it back to their spawning grounds. And while salmon and steelhead runs have been rebounding in recent years from the lows of the 1990s, the staggering magnitude of those numbers begs the question of whether or not mitigating for the dam construction is truly working.

The Science of Recovery

The question of why anadromous fish populations are in trouble and just when the trouble began is a topic of heated debate. Dam opponents point to the eight dams along the route back to Idaho—four along the lower Columbia River and four along the lower Snake River. The first of these, the Bonneville Dam, was built in 1937, with most of the remaining seven dams being built in a relatively short burst of activity from 1961 to 1975, making the once mighty Columbia-Snake watershed one of the most dammed river systems on Earth.

Dam opponents are focused on the four lower Snake River dams as being the most detrimental to anadromous fish survival and recovery, and cite scientific studies indicating “Snake River stock recovery would be assured with (their) removal” as stated by the American Fisheries Society (AFS). Opponents also note that the low energy production at the lower Snake River dams relative to other Columbia River dams minimizes the impacts to the region and its ratepayers of their removal.

Dam proponents and their supporters cite poor ocean conditions as the culprit of anadromous fish declines. They point to a history of poor practices from logging to mining and other commercial and industrial uses that degrade habitat essential to fish spawning and survival. Besides, they argue, dismantling dams will cost electricity ratepayers billions of dollars, and hundreds of millions of dollars have already been spent on anadromous fish recovery, including retrofitting dams with fish ladders and bypass routes to make them more fish friendly.

The question of why anadromous fish populations are in trouble and just when the trouble began is a topic of heated debate.

“Over many, many years, the U.S. systematically spent hundreds of millions of dollars to deconstruct the aquatic resource that these fish rely on,” Edmondson said. He pointed out that it started before we were a nation with private companies coming into the West and trapping beavers. “In the absence of beavers, the physical nature of our aquatic systems changed. We combined this with poor historic practices related to every extraction industry—systematically changing floodplains into agricultural lands by reshaping and redirecting the landscape, dewatering our streams and destroying crucial habitat and water quality due to poor historic mining and logging practices such as clear-cutting.”

“We have learned to employ modern methods (of logging) that are more compatible with the aquatic systems,” explained Edmondson. “But it has had profound effects on the aquatic resource, and, if we want to get it back, we have to turn back the clock.”

What exactly it means to “turn back the clock” is a question of constant debate by everyone from policymakers and politicians to biologists, hydrologists and geneticists.

“We can’t agree on what the science is, we can’t agree on what the right policies are, we can’t agree on who the right people are,” Trout Unlimited’s Davidson said.

The Four H’s

Although the various stakeholders may not agree on the same science or policy decisions, one thing they all can agree on are the four cornerstones of anadromous fish recovery—hydropower, habitat, hatchery and harvest.

The detrimental effects of the hydropower system, while providing what was originally touted as “clean” or “renewable” energy, have been well documented through fish count numbers and the subsequent ESA listings, making it the lynchpin of recovery efforts.

Harvest refers to both state-mandated angling limits and commercial fishing harvest limits set by NOAA while the fish are in their ocean phase of life. Many of these downstream policies affect Idaho fish without Idahoans having any say in what policies are being set. And certainly, overfishing and cannery operations in the 1900s, long before the first dam was ever built, contributed to declines in salmon runs, in particular. Still, overfishing or environmental factors related to ocean conditions, as argued in recent reports, simply cannot account for the magnitude of declines that prompted ESA listings beginning in 1991. A distinctly different situation on the free-flowing Copper River in Alaska seems to bear this out: the 2013 fish count for just one run of Copper River sockeye salmon was nearly 1.27 million fish, as reported by the Alaska Department of Fish & Game. Idaho’s sockeye run in that same year totaled a mere 757 adults returning above Lower Granite Dam.

Habitat Restoration

Mark Moulton, water fisheries program leader and a hydrologist with the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA), said, “the SNRA is in a unique position of being the barometer of the species since we are at the farthest reaches of their natural habitat.”

Trout Unlimited’s Davidson pointed out that “the Salmon River is not a flow-restricted river, but many of its tributaries in the upper basin, such as the Lemhi or Pahsimeroi, are. The Lemhi River alone has about 55 to 60 diversions along its length and much of our work involves taking those large public funding resources (from BPA) and leveraging them against the private dollars we raise in order to implement very large, complex projects involving eliminating or consolidating irrigation diversions, restoring flows and compensating landowners for taking riparian habitat out of production, protecting land through conservation easement, restoring overwinter habitat and increasing lateral habitat.”

Hatchery Vs. Wild Stocks

Hatcheries represent a fourth issue in anadromous fish recovery. And while the hatchery programs were developed as a mitigation response to the hydropower system and funded in larger part with Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) funds, they can be nearly as controversial as the dams themselves.

“It’s important to note that all hatchery programs are supplementation programs,” declared Jamie Pinkham, vice president of Native Nations for the Bush Foundation and former tribal council leader for the Nez Perce tribe. Pinkham, who worked for 12 years in anadromous fish recovery with the Nez Perce tribe, said quite simply, “Hatcheries will be used to boost the numbers of salmon runs as long as the hydro system is in place. It is a way to compensate for the domino effect of the mortality of out-migrating or returning fish that occurs at every single one of the dams.”

There are currently 208 salmon and steelhead hatchery programs in the Columbia River Basin, with BPA funding contributing $86 million or more per year toward their efforts. More hatcheries are planned for the future, but many anadromous fish conservationists and biologists would like to see them go away altogether.

“What we are finding is that genetics really, really, REALLY matter,” emphasized Davidson. “That’s why there is so much emphasis now on preserving wild stocks.”

In their journey back to their birthplace to spawn, Idaho’s salmon and steelhead travel up the Columbia, Snake and then Salmon River (pictured here), a trek of more than 900 miles. Photo by Glenn Oakley.

Wild runs of salmon and steelhead have adapted over millions of years to their unique areas of migration. For example, long-distance migrants such as those returning to Idaho’s upper Salmon River tend to have fewer and smaller eggs combined with smaller and more compact bodies than short-distance migrants so that they can survive the more rigorous demands, longer distances and more challenging river hydraulics that are part of their journey. Hatchery strays (escapees) sometimes migrate into streams and spawn with wild fish, which dilutes this gene pool.

That said, hatchery science has come a long way, and there are some hatchery programs that have been very successful in the face of the alternative—the potential extinction of the species. Idaho’s sockeye in Redfish Lake are a prime example of a population that dropped to nearly zero, and one that wouldn’t have been rebuilt without a hatchery-driven recovery effort.

The issue as Pinkham sees it is related to an overreliance on scientific methods. “For the longest time, we have relied on technological fixes to recreate or restore these natural functions,” he said. “Hatcheries themselves are actually a technological fix for a natural function. And it is not always successful. We need to put more emphasis first on restoring natural functions, and second, on reaching out to find new partners in the recovery effort.”

A Keystone Species

The matter is far from resolved. Massive litigation related to the Biological Opinions compiled by NOAA and the relicensing of the hydro facilities—the ones along the lower Snake River, in particular—has been ongoing and is an electrifying issue in many states and agencies.

“At the heart of all fisheries are people,” said Idaho’s Edmondson. “There is no fishery if there isn’t a human being interacting with it. So without people it doesn’t fit the definition of a fishery, which means that as we’re managing these fisheries, we need to think about the people that interact with them, too. All of them.”

Like Edmondson, Trout Unlimited’s Davidson has a broad perspective on the issue. “Millions of fish gone from the landscape makes a difference,” he said. “Marine-derived nutrients are now missing from these watersheds. And from our perspective, we are trying to figure out what we can do differently. Can we pull together a coalition that can actually start to have an honest dialogue about restoration of anadromous fish? Can we find ways to agree on what the right science is? Can we find ways to agree on what the agricultural community really needs? Can we open the dialogue to have a conversation with the understanding that taking down the lower four Snake River dams is not the start of taking down all dams?”

These are all questions we should be asking ourselves. Because, in the end, we just might have to let rivers be rivers. It might be time to allow them to flood and create multiple thread channels and lateral habitat, to encourage thick riparian zones and large wood in streams. It might be the only way to preserve a species with one of the greatest migrations on Earth, a species that valiantly embarks upon its upstream migration, against all odds, again and again in search of the exact waters of its birth.

“People need to care about these fish,” said Edmondson. “Society has to want to have this keystone species back in their natural habitat and in these wild places.”

In the end, this is a story with hope. However, it only matters if all those who make their livelihood in the Pacific Northwest—not just the scientists and anglers—tell it.

“There is truth and inspiration we can gain from salmon about life and about death,” said Pinkham. “Salmon just exert this innate passion, and today they are overcoming every barrier—whether it is physical or political—to fight their way back to their healing waters to renew life. And at the same time I think they give us inspiration about death because, even in death, a salmon’s duty is far from over. For in death, with their own aging body, they nourish life in a river meant to give life. And in this way, their existence becomes timeless.”

Sockeye Salmon

(Oncorhynchus nerka)

Also known as red salmon or bluebacks, sockeye utilize lakes for rearing. Kokanee, the resident (landlocked) form of sockeye, are not anadromous. Lifespan: 4-6 years. Avg. Size: 21-30 inches, 4-15 lbs.

 

 

Coho Salmon

(Oncorhynchus kisutch)

Often called silver salmon, coho appear similar to Chinook salmon in the ocean, but are distinguished by black mouths with white gums. Lifespan: 2-4 years. Avg. Size: 24-28 inches, 6-12 lbs.

Chinook Salmon

(Oncorhynchus tshawytscha)

Also known as king salmon or blackmouth (due to black gums and jaws), Chinook are the largest of Pacific salmon, and can weigh over 125 pounds. Lifespan: 3-6 years. Avg. Size: 28-40 inches, 10-30 lbs.

Steelhead

(Oncorhynchus mykiss)

Steelhead are the anadromous form of rainbow trout. Unlike Pacific salmon, that die after spawning (semelparous), some steelhead may spawn more than once (iteroparous). Lifespan: 4-8 years. Avg. Size: 25-36 inches, 6-18 lbs.


This article appears in the Summer 2015 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.