Pacific Northwest Salmon Runs Hit Troubled Times Too

Bob's big ling

Bob’s big lingcod

As the joint states of Oregon and Washington craft the salmon seasons on the lower Columbia, our community is engaging with House and Senate staff in search of disaster relief funds. It’s becoming all too common once again; we’re on the lookout for another bailout by the federal government for what once was an incredible resource. The most lucrative month of the year for fishing guides and charters on the lower Columbia River, August, has been cut in half.

Although disaster money on the table right now is due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the real disaster still lies ahead. Fall Chinook, once our most robust return of wild and hatchery salmon, is now in jeopardy. We have two specific sub-species of Chinook (there are nine total that enter the lower Columbia each fall) that are driving our limited opportunity this year, as is the case most years.

Of course, the Snake River salmon is in jeopardy. With a series of dams on the mainstem Columbia and Snake Rivers, the hydropower system obliterates both juveniles and adults on both their out-migration to the ocean and in-migration to fulfill their life cycle after spawning. Hydropower management is the simple equation of why Snake River salmon are in jeopardy. But for the lower river, Tule Chinook has next to no dams to negotiate, and doesn’t have to over-summer in the watershed like many imperiled salmonids. The over-summering species (coho, steelhead, spring Chinook and cutthroat trout) often die or are severely compromised due to the lethal summer water temperatures we often experience in Pacific Northwest watersheds. These are a cold-water species, after all. It’s a bit unfathomable that when these juveniles should be putting on their greatest weight gain, they are actually gasping for air in the dissolved-oxygen depleted watersheds of our “forested” watersheds. But I’ll save that soapbox for another blog post.

Maybe most troubling is the historic management of these species. One of my customers sent me a link to a story from the Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum titled “Wall of Fish.” It tells of one of the many impressive days of harvest that lower Columbia River seiners witnessed in the early 1900’s, when salmon were very abundant and partially responsible for settling the west. It seems quotas were not instigated, and many harvest methods were unregulated as well. After reading the story and understanding the other challenges our salmonids face while on the brink of extinction, not many close to the issue believe we’ll ever get it right.

Over the course of history, we’ve instigated regulatory measures to make course corrections when we could clearly see which way an affected species was headed. Of course, that was the right thing to do. But under few circumstances have managers implemented pro-active conservation measures to make sure we don’t harvest a species to the brink of collapse.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act is one of those rare instances. Where we once crashed numerous groundfish stocks of fish in the Pacific Ocean before the act was first passed into law, subsequent conservation provisions in the following reauthorizations took root, changing the trajectory of imperiled stocks. Today, seasons and quotas are more liberal than they have been in decades, benefitting both the sport and commercial fishermen who fuel our rural economies. We call it “working waterfronts,” and there is a great piece of legislation that goes to supporting these coastal economies.

On the scale of evolution, many of the groundfish species are long-time residents of our oceans, and therefore more adaptable. Couple this with the fact that compared to troubled species like Pacific salmon, many groundfish species have relatively small home ranges as depicted in this graphic. Because of their widespread distribution and adaptability, they have the ability to rebound astonishingly fast when protected from over-harvest. The rebuilding of many of our Pacific stocks of groundfish has been an impressive run. I had lingcod for dinner just tonight!

Anglers realize we’ll never see another “Wall of Salmon” harvested again on the Columbia River, at least not to the magnitude we did in the 1800’s. Salmon habitat is too degraded, and the loss of a diversified life history continues to compromise salmon recovery. For groundfish, however, conservation laws such as the Magnuson-Stevens Act were proactive enough to establish that catch limits are necessary, protection of forage prey is critical, and sensitive habitat must be protected to ensure a future for these fish and the communities they support.

Now, what does the future hold for these species? That is the great unknown. For salmon, scientists who convened on the Salmon 2100 project concur, if we don’t make drastic changes to our land-use laws, salmon populations in the lower Pacific states will be reduced to remnant levels by the year 2100. I regrettably feel they’re reading the crystal ball correctly here. For groundfish, the more resilient species, we’re on the right track, for now, but management strategies aren’t incorporating ocean acidification models and certainly not anomalies such as the warm water blob. MSA can deal with overharvest and protection of habitat, but as I said before cooking my lingcod tonight, “We have bigger fish to fry.”

About Bob Rees

Bob Rees is a professional fishing guide and executive director of the Northwest Guides and Anglers Association.

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