Common Sense Solutions
We've been studying the effects of human habitation on wild salmon populations for over a century.
Most of what needs to be done to help recover wild fish in the Pacific Northwest comes down to common sense: rebuild habitats, reduce pressure from artificial propagation and overfishing, and re-establish balanced predator-prey relationships.
Washington State's rivers are blocked by 1,233 dams. These range from 5 high to 555 feet high (Grand Coulee on the upper Columbia). Dams harm salmon in two ways: they prevent young fish from migrating out of the upper watersheds, and block fish returning home to their spawning grounds. In the Columbia River Basin, more than 55% of the spawning and rearing habitat once available to salmon and steelhead is now permanently blocked by dams.
Hatcheries have not lived up to their promise of being the magic fix to boost fish production. Instead, hatchery-reared salmon and steelhead have been shown to compete with wild fish for resources. Because they are raised in a pen and fed by hand, they do not learn the same survival skills as their wild counterparts. When they are released, they survive at a much lower rate, and when they spontaneously breed with wild fish, this lowers the genetic fitness of our wild populations.
How can we harvest so many millions of fish per year when so many of our rivers have so little remaining? Currently, our fisheries are managed via a mixed system: meaning that fishers can catch their limit in the open ocean, not knowing what rivers their fish call home. This is a dangerous system and one we need to correct, as well as setting more conservative limits on our harvest until populations improve.
The truth is that habitat is a mess. We've dammed, logged, mined, developed, and defiled our natural lands for over a hundred and fifty years. Puget Sound has lost over 75% of its estuaries, which is the prime rearing habitat for young salmon. Small victories in habitat restoration are being made, but the big jobs, the ones that affect people's way of life, have not yet been put on the table.
When salmon was abundant and seals lived in the sea and not in our rivers, there were enough salmon to go around. But because seals and sea lions have been protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, their numbers have increased beyond what our fragile salmon fishery can support. We must restore balance in our predator-prey relationships to give salmon a fighting chance.