PPH Passing Strange

Of Fish and Men: A Short History of Salmon Fishing in the Columbia River Basin

The industrialization of the Columbia River continues to destroy local salmon ecosystems and the livelihoods of Indigenous fishers who depend on them.


When humans were created, the Creator asked all the animals what they could do to help humans survive, as they didn’t know how to feed themselves. According to the legend, the salmon volunteered to help. Salmon was the first animal to stand up. It said, “I offer my body for sustenance for these new people,’ I’ll go to far-off places and I’ll bring back gifts to the people. My requests are that they allow me to return to the place that I was born, and also, as I do these things for the people, I’ll lose my voice. Their role is to speak up for me in the times that I can’t speak for myself.

– Traditional story from the treaty tribes of the Columbia, related by Zach Penney, fishery science department manager at the Columbia Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, and quoted in the OPB video series Superabundant

I had driven to The Dalles to get a glimpse of the bald eagles that were supposedly congregating in high numbers around the dam. No such luck, wouldn’t you know it.

Just one lonely bird…

…and a second one if you use a magnifying glass.

Instead there were plenty of other interesting sights, from the snow-capped hills that seemingly sprinkled with powdered sugar, to numerous traditional fishing scaffolds perched over the Columbia river.

A perfect occasion, then, for a reminder of what we know about salmon fishing given its central role in the physical and spiritual lives of indigenous people who have pursued it in this region for at least 10,000 years. Salmon are iconic to Northwest indigenous culture and identity, but also the main source of protein across these millennia. The fates of salmon and the Northwest tribes are intertwined and received an immeasurable blow when The Dalles dam was constructed in 1957. The dam inundated the upstream Celilo Falls and Celilo village, the largest trading center for salmon since times immemorial. There was scant compensation for the loss, subpar housing built only for a few permanent residents of the village who were displaced, ignoring all those tribal members who lived on reservations but regularly came to Celilo to fish and trade. It took until 2005 to start building the promised structures and no serious reparations have been paid for the immense loss of livelihoods that depend on salmon fishing. (Ref.)


Seattle Repertory Theatre Fat Ham

The runs consist of five species of salmon: Chinook (king), sockeye (red), coho (silver), chum (dog), pink (humpback), and steelhead, a migratory form of trout. All of them, shown below, existed in abundance, not least because native fishing practices controlled for overfishing.

(I got most of this information here and here. The second source includes a detailed and fascinating description of the life cycle of the salmon, which is much more complex than what they taught you in 5th grade! More on the history of the tribes that have fished here for millennia can be found at the Museum at Warm Springs – well worth a visit for their photographic collection alone. It was just featured in Oregon ArtsWatch.)

The bad news first: salmon runs have been in further decline, harmed by dams, overfishing, and by environmental degradations caused by farming runoffs, construction, land fragmentation, local logging and mining, and now the universal water-heating effects of climate change.

The good news next: organizations like CRITFC play a central role in trying to manage, restore and improve the situation, representing the four regional tribes: the Nez Perce, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation. With over 100 employees across multiple departments, they use biological research, fisheries management, and hydrology to support the protection and restoration of Columbia River Basin salmon, lamprey, and sturgeon. Equally importantly, they continue to ensure that tribal treaty rights are protected, with the help of their lawyers, policy analysts, and fisheries enforcement officers.

Fish ladders and hatcheries help support salmon, but the runs continue to struggle. Just a fraction of the fish successfully journey from ocean to spawning areas each year, as revealed by DNA samples and data collected from tagged salmon. Hatcheries can increase the harvest, but they also have downsides. They are believed to have contributed to the more than a 90% reduction in the spawning densities of wild coho salmon in the lower Columbia River over the past 30 years. Why? Well, when domesticated fish breed with wild salmon, the genetic fitness of their offspring is often diminished. When hatchery fish are released, they compete for food in the wild and often eat the smaller wild fish. They bring diseases, abetted by crowded hatcheries, into wild fish populations. It is not a solution.


Portland Opera Puccini

Historically, the environmental knowledge of tribal members and their willingness to fight to protect the fish have helped to ward off complete disaster. The taboo against taking spawning fish, the tradition of waiting periods at the beginning of the upstream runs, and limited fishing seasons all ensured that fish would return for thousands of years. And then the Europeans arrived.

A natural river meanders and sometimes floods, creating quiet side channels that salmon require. The fish also need their eggs, buried in gravel, not to be suffocated in dirt nor swept away. They need them to be nourished by oxygen-rich cool water flowing through the egg pockets. They need enough water in the stream — a dewatered streambed is a salmon graveyard. They need access downstream to the ocean and upstream to their spawning grounds. They need unpolluted water. (Ref.)

All was affected by the newcomers. Land for farming, cleared down to the water, deprived the rivers of shade for cool water temperatures. Clear-cut riverbanks created silt that suffocated the spawning beds. Irrigating the crops emptied the streams. Dams without fish ladders – needed for flour, woolen mills, irrigation, and, later, electricity – interrupted upstream fish travel.

As of 2020, 1,226 regulated dams exist in Washington State alone. (Many do not cross streams but contain irrigation ponds, manure lagoons, and the like.)

Logging of old growth trees led to more forest fires, destabilizing the riparian woods, and again increasing silt. Loggers also built splash dams to facilitate log floats downriver, by first backing up water and then releasing it in a flash, a process which is disastrous for salmon fry. Mining booms led to the construction of new towns, which demanded the excavations of river beds for gravel, sand, and limestone. Hydraulic mining required extensive ditch systems and dams. Detritus and chemicals rushed into creeks, destroying spawning beds. All this occurred even before the era of massive overfishing, which would prove even more disastrous for these ecosystems.

In 1854, a treaty was signed at Medicine Creek which granted the tribes “the right of taking fish, at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations…” – words which were fully ignored. Many governmental restrictions were aimed at tribal fishermen, while licenses were granted to commercial fishermen and then sport fishermen, increasing the maximally allowed harvest even when it was already common knowledge that the runs were endangered.

In 1935, the first year Washington kept records, the tribal catch was 2 percent of the catch whereas “the powerboat fleet hauled in 90 percent. According to state records, the entire Indian catch for Puget Sound from 1935 to 1950 accounted for less salmon than taken by the commercial fishing fleet in one typical year.” (Ref.)


Seattle Repertory Theatre Fat Ham

Eventually, tribal representatives tried fighting for their rights in court, which upheld the treaties only to be ignored again by state governments. Tribal activists like Billy Frank Jr. and Bob Satiacum and their supporters staged now-legendary fish-ins in the 1970s to protest limited fishing seasons, only to be arrested. This led to the United States Department of Justice filing a case against the state of Washington (US v. Washington, 384 Fed Supp). Judge George Boldt (1903-1984) issued a historic ruling (upheld in appeals) which affirmed the tribes’ original right to fish, which they had retained in the treaties, and which they had extended to settlers. It allocated 50 percent of the annual catch to treaty tribes, changing the game for fishing (and making a lot of non-tribal folks intensely angry.

Restoration efforts, however, have been attempted by multiple constituencies.

Landowners including farmers, tribal governments, state agencies, conservation organizations, and individual volunteers from all walks of life are replanting riverine forestland, removing invasive species, placing woody debris, installing engineered snags, and reconnecting floodplains to their rivers. (Ref.)

We’ll see if the efforts can outrun the averse effects of population growth, riverside development, and loss of forest cover to wildfires. Removal of dams continues to be a key issue.

In the meantime here is a clip of traditional salmon fishing and the wise instruction of Brigette McConville, salmon trader and vice chair of the Warm Springs Tribal Council and a member of the Warm Springs, Wasco, and Northern Paiute tribes: “Whoever works with fish, it’s important to be happy. The old saying, ‘Don’t cook when you’re mad’ – that’s true in every culture.”

Here is a poem by Luhui Whitebear, an enrolled member of the Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation and the Assistant Director of the Oregon State University Native American Longhouse Eena Haws.



Cascadia Composers May the Fourth

  • This essay was first published Feb. 4, 2022, on Friderike Heuer’s website YDP – Your Daily Picture. It is republished here with permission.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Friderike Heuer is a photographer and photomontage artist. Trained as an experimental psychologist at the New School for Social Research, she taught at Lewis & Clark College until she retired to pursue art full time. Her cultural blog www.heuermontage.com explores art and politics on a daily basis through photography and commentary. She has exhibited most recently at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education and Camerawork Gallery, on issues concerning migrants and refugees. She frequently volunteers as a photographer for small, local arts non-profits. For more information, visit www.friderikeheuer.online.


2 Responses

  1. Perhaps the state and federal agencies should turn over fish restoration to the tribes. Give them a chance to restore some of what was lost. Find them proceeds from the electricity generated at dam sites and see what they can do with the money. I am a sport fisherman and would love to see salmon restored so that we may all partake in the harvesting of this once bountiful species.

  2. It’s high time the Dalles Dam was re-engineered to restore Celilo Falls. If today’s engineers can figure out how to build canals that cross over other canals, they ought to be able to figure out how to split the Columbia’s water between the falls and a (smaller) dam that retains the benefits of the current one.

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