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

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When humans were created, the Creator asked all animals what they could do to help humans survive, because they didn’t know how to feed themselves. According to legend, the salmon volunteered to help. The salmon was the first animal to stand up. He said, “I offer my body to feed these new people,” I will go to distant places and bring back gifts to people. My demands are that they allow me to return to where I was born, and also, as I do these things for people, I will lose my voice. Their role is to speak for me in times when I cannot speak for myself.

– Traditional history of the Columbia Treaty Tribes, as told by Zach Penney, Head of the Department of Fisheries Science at Columbia Intertribal Fish Commissionand quoted in the OPB video series overabundant

I had driven to Les Dalles to spot the bald eagles that were supposedly congregating in large numbers around the dam. Bad luck, you don’t know.

One solitary bird…

…and a second if you use a magnifying glass.

Instead, there were plenty of other interesting sights, from the snow-capped hills that seemed sprinkled with powdered sugar, to the many traditional fishing scaffolds perched above the Columbia River.

A great opportunity therefore to recall what we know about salmon fishing, given its central role in the physical and spiritual life of the Aboriginal peoples who have practiced it in this region for at least 10,000 years. Salmon is emblematic of the indigenous culture and identity of the Northwest, but also the main source of protein during these millennia. The fates of the salmon and the tribes of the Northwest are intertwined and received an immeasurable blow when the Dalles Dam was constructed in 1957. The dam flooded Celilo Falls upstream and the village of Celilo, the largest center salmon trade since time immemorial. There was little compensation for the loss, poor 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 livelihood that depends on the salmon fishery. (Ref.)

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The tracks 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, pictured below, existed in abundance, not least because indigenous fishing practices controlled overfishing.

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

The bad news first: Salmon returns have continued to decline, damaged by dams, overfishing and environmental degradation caused by agricultural runoff, construction, land fragmentation, logging and mining. local, and now the universal effects of climate change on warming water.

The good news then: organizations like CRITFC play a central role in trying to manage, restore and improve the situation, representing the four regional tribes: the Pierced nosethe Confederate Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservationthe Confederate Tribes of Oregon’s Warm Springs Reservationand the Confederate Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation. With over 100 staff across multiple departments, they use biological research, fisheries management, and hydrology to support the protection and restoration of salmon, lamprey, and sturgeon in the Columbia River Basin. Equally important, 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 the salmon, but runs continue to struggle. Only a fraction of fish successfully travel from the ocean to spawning grounds each year, as revealed by DNA samples and data collected from tagged salmon. Hatcheries can increase harvest, but they also have drawbacks. They are thought to have contributed to the reduction of more than 90% in 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 smaller wild fish. They introduce disease, encouraged by overcrowded hatcheries, into wild fish populations. This is not a solution.

Historically, the tribesmen’s environmental knowledge and willingness to fight to protect the fish helped avert complete disaster. The taboo against taking spawning fish, the tradition of waiting periods at the start of runs, and limited fishing seasons have all ensured that fish will return for thousands of years. And then the Europeans arrived.

A natural river meanders and sometimes overflows, creating calm side channels that the salmon need. Fish also need their eggs, buried in the gravel, not to be smothered in the dirt or washed away. They need to be fed by fresh oxygen-rich water flowing through the egg sacs. They need enough water in the stream — a dry stream bed is a graveyard for salmon. They need access downstream from the ocean and upstream from their spawning grounds. They need unpolluted water. (Ref.)

Everything has been touched by the newcomers. Farmland, cleared to the water, deprived the rivers of shade for cool water temperatures. The clear-cut banks created silt that smothered the spawning grounds. The irrigation of crops has emptied the streams. Weirs without fish ladders – needed for flour, woolen mills, irrigation and, later, electricity – interrupted the movement of fish upstream.

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

Logging of ancient trees has led to more forest fires, destabilizing riparian woods and increasing silt again. Loggers also built splash dams to help float logs downstream, first pushing water back and then releasing it in a flash, a disastrous process for salmon fry. Mining booms led to the construction of new towns, which required the excavation of riverbeds for gravel, sand and limestone. Hydraulic mining required extensive systems of ditches and dams. Detritus and chemicals rushed into streams, destroying spawning grounds. All of this happened 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 to fish, on all common and customary lands and stations…” – words which were totally ignored. Many government restrictions targeted tribal fishermen, while licenses were granted to commercial fishermen and then to sport fishermen, increasing the maximum allowable harvest even when it was already common knowledge that the tracks were in danger.

In 1935, the first year Washington kept records, tribal catches accounted for 2% of the catch while “the motorboat fleet carried 90%. According to state records, the entire Indian catch for Puget Sound from 1935 to 1950 was fewer salmon than those caught by the commercial fishing fleet in a typical year..” (Ref.)

Eventually, the tribal representatives attempted to defend their rights in the courts, which upheld the treaties only to be ignored again by state governments. Tribal activists like Billy Frank Jr. and Bob Satiacum and their followers organized now-legendary fisheries in the 1970s to protest limited fishing seasons, only to be shut down. This led the United States Department of Justice to file a lawsuit against the state of Washington (United States against Washington, 384 Fed Supplement). Judge George Boldt (1903-1984) issued a historic decision (confirmed on appeal) which affirmed the original fishing rights of the tribes, which they had preserved in the treaties, and which they had extended to the settlers. He allocated 50% of the annual catch to treaty tribes, changing the game for the fishery (and angering many non-tribal people intensely.

Restoration efforts, however, were attempted by several constituencies.

Landowners, including farmers, tribal governments, state agencies, conservation organizations and volunteers from all walks of life, are replanting riparian forests, removing invasive species, placing woody debris, installing artificial snags and reconnect floodplains to their rivers. (Ref.)

We will see if the efforts can outweigh the adverse effects of population growth, riverbank development and loss of forest cover due to wildfires. Dam removal continues to be a key issue.

Waiting for here is an extract from traditional salmon fishing and the wise instruction of Brigitte McConville, salmon marketer and Vice President of the Warm Springs Tribal Council and member of the Warm Springs, Wasco and Northern Paiute Tribes: “Anyone who works with fish is important to be happy. The old saying, “Don’t cook when you’re crazy” – it’s true in all cultures.

Right here is a poem by Luhui Whitebear, Enrolled Member of the Chumash Nation Coastal Band and Deputy Warden of the Eena Haws Native American Longhouse at Oregon State University.

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  • This essay was first published on February 4, 2022 on the Friderike Heuer website YDP – Your daily image. It is republished here with permission.


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 retiring to pursue art full-time. His cultural blog www.heuermontage.com explores everyday art and politics 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 often volunteers as a photographer for small local non-profit arts organizations. For more information, visit www.friderikeheuer.online.

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