Pacific Salmon at the Crossroads:

An Assessment of Wild Salmon Populations from California to Washington

From the October 1994 issue of the Environmental Review


In 1991, Nehlsen, Williams and Lichtowich published a list of 214 native, naturally spawning salmon stocks close to extinction in California, Oregon, Idaho and Washington. Of these, 101 stocks are at high risk of extinction, fifty-eight are at moderate risk and fifty-four are of special concern. Although the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is intended to protect individual populations of endangered species, only the Sacramento River spring chinook stock, the Snake River spring-summer and fall chinook and the Snake River sockeye stocks are formally listed as endangered species. Many other petitions for listing under the ESA are being considered by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

     The crossroads paper is the first comprehensive survey of wild salmon populations on the West Coast of the United States. The gist of the paper is that many wild salmon stocks on the West Coast of the U.S. are close to extinction. This has occured despite hatchery supplementation and regulation of fisheries.

     Although the paper lists the 214 salmon stocks that are in trouble, the authors frequently cannot say how large those stocks were in the past. Except for intensively studied fisheries such as on the Columbia River, reliable information about wild fish populations does not exist. However, the authors write "It is clear that what has survived is a small proportion of what once existed, and what remains is substantially at risk."

The list:

     The crossroads paper cites several examples of how some salmon populations have declined in recent years. In 1989 the number of winter chinook counted at the Red Bluff dam on the Sacramento River was 550, compared to 86,000 in previous years. The Sacramento chinook are now on the official endangered species list. Snake River sockeye salmon returning to Red Fish lake in Idaho had counts ranging from fifty-five to 4,400 fish in the 1950s. In 1989 two sockeye salmon returned, in 1990 one fish returned. The causes of this decline were dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers and damage to their lake rearing areas.

     The Grande Ronde River in Oregon historically supported a run of 2,000 to 4,000 coho salmon. By 1980 the population was reduced to fifty fish. The Klamath river population of spring chinook has undergone a ninety-five percent reduction from historical population levels due to dams, irrigation, mining, timber harvest, pollution and floods. Chum salmon on the Columbia River are at less than one percent of their historic level. These populations have been reduced primarily by habitat degradation from forest and agricultural practices, urbanization, pollution and overharvest in mainstem fisheries directed at other fish. [Mainstem means the main channel of a river. ed.]



     Salmon stocks on this list that have gone extinct include: spring chinook salmon on the Sandy River in Oregon, spring chinook salmon on the Klickitat River in Washington and on the Dosewallops river in Washington, and on the Elwha river in Washington, fall run chinook salmon on the Washougal river in Washington, and on the White Salmon River in Washington, and on the Ozette River in Washington, coho salmon on the Washougal River, on the Nooksack River in Washington, chum salmon in the Washougal River, and on the Ozette, on the Snake and on the Elwha, pink salmon on the Russian River in California and steelhead in the White Salmon river. Sockeye salmon in the Deschutes River in Oregon were largely eradicated by dam construction. The loss of other runs has been well documented. Hood River in Oregon has had fewer than one hundred spring chinook spawners returning in recent years and has been declared extinct. The reasons were habitat loss, agricultural diversions of water, and inadequate dam passage of young fish. Dams and logging on the Elwha River on the Olympic peninsula in Washington resulted in the loss of spring chinook and sockeye populations. Elwha River chinook salmon lived ten to twelve years and commonly reached one hundred pounds, the size needed to ascend numerous steep canyons and rapids. According to the authors, "At least 106 major populations of salmon and steelhead on the West Coast have been extirpated. Natural production in the Columbia River basin now is about four to seven percent of pre-development levels."

     In addition to those populations already extinct, the remainder of the 101 populations are at high risk of extinction. Their populations are in most cases, a small fraction of their former size. The Endangered Species Act contains language intended to protect local populations.

     In this reviewers opinion, the list in the crossroads paper probably underestimates the salmon populations that have been lost. For example, east of Mt. St. Helens, the Lewis River up to the upper falls is prime salmon habitat. It has had no salmon on it since dams were put in downstream. This and many other smaller rivers are not mentioned in the paper.

Where are Salmon not Declining?

Spring and summer chinook on the outer coast of Washington have increased in recent years. This area is away from human population centers and consists mostly of national park and tribal lands.

What Caused the Decline in Wild Salmon?

     The authors write, "The decline in native salmon, steelhead, and sea-run cutthroat populations has resulted from loss and damage to habitat for spawning and rearing, from inadequate passage and flows caused by hydropower dams, agriculture, logging and other developments, overfishing, primarily of weaker stocks in mixed-stock fisheries, and negative interactions with other fishes, including nonnative hatchery salmon and steelhead. While some attempts at remedying these threats have been made, they have not been enough to prevent the broad decline of salmon stocks along the West Coast of the U.S. In most cases, enough of the native resource remains to allow a variety of remedial actions. If the salmon and their habitat continue to diminish, however, available options for present and future generations will diminish or disappear."  

     We discussed the crossroads paper with Dr. Willa Nehlsen, one of its authors. Dr. Nehlsen is employed by the Pacific Rivers Council in Portland Oregon. She received the Ph.D. in Biology from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

ER: Dr. Nehlsen, how did you get involved with surveying wild salmon populations?

WN: The crossroads paper started in 1987. I had been working at the Northwest Power Planning Council for about three years. Kai Lee, who was one of the Council members, was aware of my interest in salmon population viability and suggested that I look at some of the populations in the Snake River. The Power Planning Council had been very concerned that the water flows and dam passage conditions had been such that Snake River salmon were doing very poorly. If they were on the road to extinction, we wanted to know about it.

     So I did an assessment of the Snake River salmon stocks. I looked at how many fish were coming back to spawn and divided them into groups: whether there were 0 to 100 fish coming back, 100 to 400 fish coming back, or 400 to 1000 fish coming back. I found quite a number of populations were in the 0 to 100 fish category, too few to be considered viable over the long term.

     I gave a report on that result to the Power Planning Council in July of 1987. I told them there were a number of stocks that were at very low numbers, and one of those was Snake River sockeye which at the time had about twenty-five fish coming back. Now in 1994, when there are four or fewer coming back, that seems like a lot of fish. I also told them that coho salmon in the Snake River had just become extinct. 1984 was the last year that any coho were counted over Lower Granite dam, the uppermost Snake River mainstem dam. I reported this with a certain amount of shock because I found it personally very surprising that this unique population - it was the most upriver run of coho in the Columbia, it went back to the Walowa River in the Grand Ronde Basin - was gone. The council members were quite upset about it.

ER: This was fourteen years after the Endangered Species Act was passed.

WN: Right. And it was seven years after the Northwest Power Act was passed. And the Power Planning Council was supposed to be preventing salmon from becoming extinct. And nobody had read anything about it in the newspaper. I was shocked that this extinction had happened and there had been no press about it, nothing.

     So then a fellow named Al Wright went up to the microphone - he was in charge of the Pacific Northwest Utilities Conference Committee fish program and he is now their director - he said that Snake River coho salmon did not go extinct, they were eradicated. His view was that coho in the Snake River became extinct as the result of fish management. He believed that the decision had been made that the priority was not to keep this salmon population going. You could not keep that population going and still sustain the coastal coho fisheries and the dams. This was a transforming experience for me and I believe, for others.

     After the meeting, I was contacted by Jack Williams, who was the chair of the American Fisheries Society Endangered Species Committee. He asked me if I would be willing to do the survey of the salmon on the West Coast for the American Fisheries Society. I said that I would, having absolutely no idea how much time it would take to do that.

ER: How much time did the survey take?

WN: It took two and a half years. Jack and I both worked on it and then we got Jim Lichatowich involved as well. All of us put in a lot of time outside of work hours trying to bring it to fruition. Finally we sent it to the publisher at the end of 1990 and it came out in the spring of 1991.

ER: Why did it take three people outside the academic establishment to point out that the native salmon stocks were crashing up and down the coast?

WN: Three people who were outside of the fishery management agencies, is the other question. When I started working for the Power Planning Council I felt that there was an atmosphere of keeping the hatcheries going. There was not very much concern about native salmon. They thought of salmon as a commodity. The only people who were very concerned about native salmon were fishermen and many of them were concerned about what they called wild fish because they thought that they were better to fish on.

     One person I know who was involved with trying to save native salmon from the very beginning was Bill Bakke from Oregon Trout. He was the main person at that time who was interested in wild salmon.

ER: Bill is outside the academic institutions or the government agencies. I still do not understand how almost everyone missed this.

WN: The academic institutions, their fisheries programs were primarily oriented toward the commodity side of salmon.

ER: Disease control.

WN: Yes, exactly. Aquaculture. But even conservation biologists did not care about native salmon very much at that time.

ER: Because hatchery programs masked the decline?

WN: No, because they were not interested. Salmon did not have the charisma of grizzly bears.

ER: But salmon are such a big part of the culture of the Pacific Northwest.

WN: Yes. I don't know the answer. It seems very strange but the fishing community did not - I am not sure it is fair to say they did not care - but they certainly did not know or understand the magnitude of the problem. The environmentalists had no interest in salmon at the time. And there really were very few conservation biologists - Fred Allendorf was one of the few who were interested at the time.

ER: You mean in the mid to late 1980s?

WN: Yes. But look at the education we got. When I went to the University of Washington in the botany department, what did I learn about? The tropics. They did not have any program about the ecology of Northwest forests. The ecologist there was interested in the tropics. The same was true in California. We have, both with forests and fish, had these tremendous resources in the Pacific Northwest that we had viewed as commodities. I think our crossroads paper helped change that. Making it clear that native fish are important and are in trouble, was new.

     Regarding the management agencies, nobody understood the magnitude of the problem because nobody looked at a big enough picture. Even individual state agencies did not know what the status of salmon was in their states, not to mention anybody knowing coast-wide what the status was.

ER: Was that due to the success of the hatchery runs?

WN: I think that had a lot to do with it. People had pretty much bought into the notion that we can sustain salmon with hatcheries. At the time it seemed like we could. The hatcheries were pretty successful. It has only been in the past few years, especially with coho, that it is clear that the hatchery programs are not holding up over the long term. With coho, the hatchery programs have very successfully put out a lot of fish and as a result the wild stocks have been over-fished.

ER: Wild salmon get caught with the hatchery fish.

WN: Right. In what we call a mixed stock fishery. And also, wild fish survive unfavorable conditions much better than hatchery fish do. So now we have a situation where hatchery fish have essentially replaced wild fish, and they survive much more poorly. So we have not bought ourselves much in the long run. We bought ourselves some good years of big harvests but now we have bought ourselves a lot of trouble.

ER: In 1994, we are in one of these cyclic periods of ocean warming - El Niño - where conditions are bad for salmon offshore.

WN: People are trying to solve the problem by making hatcheries better. That may be possible. When hatchery fish are released they have no idea how to behave. There have been studies in artificial streams where you can see this - the hatchery fish tend to maraud around in groups or schools. They do not quietly hide under cover waiting for the food to come by. They maraud around and attract predators and disrupt the behavior of the wild fish. They do not know to avoid predators. There is a program to teach them to avoid predators and it seems to work. They put small hatchery fish in a tank. They drop in a squaw fish and after one or two of the young fish get eaten, the rest of them have learned something.

     But realistically, on how large a scale are we going to do this? It puts people in the position of trying to micromanage nature. And we know that nature is infinitely complex, so how are we ever in the long run going to succeed at that? I think that is not going to work.

ER:  Can salmon hatcheries be operated in a non-destructive way, or are they just a complete misconception of how nature works?

WN: Theoretically. In a hatchery you want to increase the survival of juvenile fish because in nature juvenile fish survival is very low. And at the same time you want them to be like wild fish. The way to make them like wild fish is to subject them to enough selection that the ones that remain are fit.

ER: So the high losses of wild fish as juveniles are part of that selective pressure?

WN: Exactly. That is why wild fish survive better as adults. So if you make your hatchery fish too much like wild fish, what have you got?

ER: A wild run.

WN: Essentially, with fewer fish leaving the hatchery. But there may be a window in there where you have increased the juvenile survival and still have a reasonable level of fitness. So in theory it should be possible, but it has not been demonstrated to my satisfaction.  

     It seems to me that when you start talking about the kind of resources that you put in to making that kind of very advanced hatchery, why not put your resources into something that will improve your salmon rearing habitat?

ER: Why is it important to save wild salmon runs?

WN: Salmon as a species evolved over about 10,000 years since the last glaciation of the Northwest. Salmon return to the stream they were born in with pretty good reliability; the estimates are about ninety-seven percent. As a result of a number of generations returning to the same stream, the population becomes adapted to the characteristics of that stream. So the young fish go out to sea when there is a freshet to help them go out, the adults come back to spawn when there is going to be water for them to come back.

ER: These adaptations to local differences drive the diversity of the species. We can watch the evolution of the salmon through their adaptation to these different streams.

WN: Yes. And each population is unique to the extent that each stream is unique. And you can imagine that each stream is unique as it has an underlying geology, vegetation and water flow patterns. Each stream has a different combination of these that give it a suite of characteristics that the salmon population is adapted to.

     And so it is in the wild stocks that have that adaptation, where the genetic diversity of the species is. One of the real problems with hatchery programs is that they often will take fish from one stream and move them to another stream to create the hatchery stock. It has been shown that the farther away you move a stock from its original stream, the lower its return rate will be. And so transferring the stock away from its stream of origin - and whenever that stock will hybridize with another stock - you have losses in survival.

ER: Of both stocks.

WN: Right. And that is one of the problems - that if you have hatchery fish interbreeding with native or wild fish in a stream, then the survival of the wild fish is reduced.

     We have touched on one of the ways that hatcheries pose a problem for wild fish, which is in causing over fishing on them in mixed stock fisheries. Another way is through the reduction in fitness from interbreeding. We also talked about the behavioral interactions. Another way that we have not talked about is what you would call ecological interactions. Hatchery fish are usually larger when they are released so they may either feed on the wild fish or outcompete them for food. Those are some of the ways that hatcheries pose problems for wild fish.

     Wild fish are important because over the long term, hatcheries cannot sustain the genetic diversity of the species. When a hatchery run is created, it is usually just a subset of the wild run and so a lot of the genetic diversity of the wild run is lost right away. Then the different selection pressures in the hatchery will genetically change the stock. Hatchery fish have a lower survival in the ocean or pretty much throughout their life history once they leave the hatchery.

ER: So salmon are gone from every river south of the Sacramento River, and in big trouble there. According to your paper there was what - a couple of little runs in the Malibu area?

WN: Yes. There are a few steelhead runs south of the Sacramento River but yes, it is pretty grim.

ER: The crossroads paper is now three years old. If we had those kind of steelhead coming back to Lake Washington in 1994, we would be happy with the numbers you reported three years ago. That run is very close to extinction.

WN: Yes. I am concerned that there is not a process to keep updating those numbers, although things are set in motion. Washington and Oregon are both now committed to monitoring the status of their stocks. They were not before.

ER: I have trouble understanding how we could let such an important species get into so much trouble.

WN: It is only fair to say that managers were doing what was believed to be the right thing at the time. I think probably about the least useful thing to do in this situation is a lot of blaming. I find that whole Ballard Locks [Lake Washington steelhead. ed.] situation pretty typical. We have created that situation by having the fish have to go through a small opening to get upstream and having various sorts of mortalities on their way. And then the sea lions move in and our response is, we need to shoot them. Sea lions are probably doing a pretty good job at decimating the run but that is a human caused problem. And coast-wide, the sea lions are not a major contributor to salmon declines.

ER: Salmon have been living with sea lions for thousands of years. What have you been working on recently?

WN: Among other things, I have been looking at the South Umpqua River [in southern Oregon. ed.] which is in a rain shadow of coastal mountains and so it is a relatively dry basin with low summer rainfall. A marginal salmon habitat. The salmon runs there are doing very badly. And a lot of the problem is water withdrawals. That area is going to develop very fast. It has a very California-like climate and there is going to be an enormous amount of growth there. You have to wonder how will people save the salmon runs in a place like that where salmon are on the brink now, and the population of that county is going to be growing very quickly. The good thing is that the local people are concerned about it and are aware of the problem and are trying to do something about it.

ER: They're not writing off the salmon runs?

WN: No. When I talk about this, I try not to be too pessimistic so that people do not give up. I think the forest plan will help. I think with the key watersheds and riparian strategy, or the aquatic conservation strategy, I think that will be very helpful.

     The problems and the solutions are different in different areas. On the Columbia River the dam problems have to be solved before much is going to get better there. On the coast there is a different set of problems. But it all comes down to how human beings live on the land.

Literature Cited

Pacific Salmon at the Crossroads: Stocks at Risk from California, Oregon, Idaho and Washington. 1991 Fisheries 16:4-21

Copyright 1994 Environmental Review