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Op-Ed: Commercial Fisheries' Historical Influence on Columbia River Salmon Recovery


October 1, 2019

Commercial Fisheries’ Historical Influence on Columbia River salmon Recovery

By Irene Martin

Current thinking about salmon recovery on the Columbia River divides the concept into four categories, known as the four “Hs”: harvest, hatcheries, hydro, habitat. But there is a fifth “H,” History, that is often neglected, which tells us that recovery of salmon is by no means confined to our own era.

Native Americans fished and traded in fish on the Columbia for many generations. Early 19th century trading companies such as the Hudson’s Bay Company also saw commercial possibilities in salmon, and salted it in barrels and shipped it to far-flung markets. However, the era of commercial fishing took off in 1866 when the Hume Brothers canned their first pack of salmon on a scow at Eagle cliff on the lower Columbia. This early small endeavor was followed immediately by other canneries, with rapid technological change occurring in the canning process itself. 1866 marked the beginning of the Industrial Revolution on the Columbia and it progressed with astonishing swiftness. Fifteen years after the first cannery, the industry had some 39 canneries located from Astoria to The Dalles.

The growth in the canning business led to overfishing, particularly of the highly valued spring and summer chinook, the “Royal Chinook” runs that were legendary on the Columbia. Of growing concern was increasing pollution on the Willamette River in particular due to mills, leather tanneries and other factories in the 1860s and 1870s. To deal with these issues, the early salmon canners formed the Oregon and Washington Fish Propagating Company and in 1875 sponsored Livingstone Stone, a pioneering fish culturist, for a tour of the Columbia River. In 1877, they funded Stone to establish the first hatchery on the Columbia, the Clackamas hatchery.

Around the same time, Robert Hume, one of the Hume family members, became fascinated with the idea of raising fish, and at his own expense began experimenting with hatchery methods. He had fished on the Kennebec River in Maine and on the Sacramento in California, and had witnessed the downturn of salmon runs on both rivers. He developed a hatching station at Gold Beach on the Rogue River and in 1893 he published a little booklet, salmon of the Pacific Coast, outlining his methods and promoting the cause of artificial propagation.

Alfred Houchen conducted other experiments with the hatchery concept in his private hatchery on the Bear River in 1885, and in 1895 moved his hatchery to the Chinook River. He, Jasper Prest, owner of the property, and John McGowan of the McGowan Cannery family built a new facility, which became the first state-owned and operated hatchery in Washington. Houchen had been a commercial fisherman, a logger, a cannery manager and had worked in sawmills. Like Robert Hume, he invented much of the equipment needed to operate a hatchery, including a fish crate for transporting fish which he patented. The salmon to provide eggs and milt needed to propagate the fish were originally contributed by local salmon trap operators.

To combat overfishing, regulation of commercial fisheries began in the early 1870s and progressed to the point where a bi-state agreement (still in effect) called the Columbia River Compact was ratified by Congress in 1918. Its purpose was to ensure that the Columbia River fishing regulations of both Oregon and Washington were congruent, and designed to allow escapement of salmon necessary for perpetuating the runs and to prevent overfishing.

A 1923 stock offering by the Megler Company of Brookfield, Washington, stated: “Perhaps the most striking factor in Columbia river salmon fishing is that with wise supervision and restriction, this swimming wealth is apparently a perpetual one. The Columbia river is the only salmon stream in the world where years of fishing have not depleted the run of salmon. And this for the reason that each year, through the co-operation of the packers and through reciprocal arrangements of the states of Oregon and Washington, hundreds of thousands of salmon are planted annually.”

While Megler probably overstated the facts, nonetheless, the science of salmon propagation and of fisheries management had advanced materially by the early 1920s.

But in the 1920s, the concept of big dams on the Columbia arose with the licensing proposal for Priest Rapids Dam. The Astoria Daily Budget (May 1, 1924, p. 12) argued: “The Priest Rapids project is just one of the developments of civilization which jeopardize the future runs and supply of the salmon of the Columbia. Most of these developments are logical and desirable, but they make it more and more necessary for the friends of the fishing industry to give increasing thought and attention to the methods of safeguarding the salmon. Artificial propagation is of course the one big safeguard but even that will be insufficient unless there is a strong, and intelligent and alert public sentiment which will look after the public’s rights in this resource and protect those rights…The leadership in this public attitude must be assumed by those communities which benefit most directly from the runs of salmon.”

The leadership that emerged in the commercial fishery was comprised of the Columbia River Fishermen’s Protective Union and the Columbia River salmon and Tuna Packers Association.

Numerous struggles regarding fish passage, declining salmon runs and other issues accompanied the dam-building era. One of the most notable contributions made by the commercial fishery at this time was support for the Mitchell Act in 1938. The Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s website notes “The Act recognized that anadromous fish populations were in a serious decline, and that the decline was caused by impacts on spawning and rearing habitat from deforestation, pollution, hydroelectric dams and diversion of water for irrigation.” The appropriation to fund the Act, in the amount of half-a-million dollars, came from payments received by the federal government between 1905 and 1931 from leases with commercial fishing interests on the lower Columbia for seining grounds on Sand Island and other estuary locales.

The Mitchell Act funded development of production facilities to mitigate environmental damage and provide fish for harvest. As an example, when the Elochoman Hatchery was built in 1954, to mitigate for damage from splash dams and significant logging activity, only 13 fall Chinook salmon arrived at the racks in the lower river. All were males, and no eggs were taken. By developing a broodstock from local streams, twenty years later, in 1976, fall chinook returns to the Elochoman were 2,643. Many of the gene pools currently in existence from which it is hoped to rebuild naturally-spawning populations of salmonids listed under the Endangered Species Act, resulted from the Mitchell Act hatcheries’ success in rebuilding those runs.

In the 1970s, groups of commercial fishermen began looking at ways to supplement hatchery production with smaller projects, utilizing suitable habitat to establish naturally spawning runs. Generally these projects involved hatchboxes, also known as “incubator boxes,” which protected salmon eggs from predation, to jump-start natural production. Commercial fishermen on the Columbia were primarily interested in raising chum salmon. However, sufficient chum salmon eggs were not available for their projects, and the program died around 1979. Fishermen on the Willapa achieved greater success with their hatchbox program.

More recently, fishermen, particularly in the Astoria area, developed what are known as SAFE areas (Select Area Fisheries Enhancement). Fish are raised in net pens in areas with few competing wild or naturally spawning fish and released to come back in harvestable numbers as a supplemental fishery to the mainstem. In the early 2000’s, based on experiments done in British Columbia, experimental use of the tangle net/live box combination began.

The tangle net, sometimes called a tooth net, has a fairly small mesh, designed not to gill fish but to entangle them by their teeth for live capture. Fin-clipped hatchery fish may be retained; those with an adipose fin are released. If an unmarked fish is lethargic or showing signs of distress, it is put into a live box or recovery box, which is basically an artificial respiration chamber. The flow of oxygenated water helps resuscitate the fish which can then be released. Fishermen refer to these boxes as “Jesus boxes” or “Lazarus boxes.” Further experiments with other forms of alternative gear, including seines and traps, continue.

In 2004, the Lower Columbia Fish Recovery Board published the Lower Columbia salmon Recovery and Fish and Wildlife Sub-basin Plan, a long-term salmon recovery plan, with a 2nd edition in 2010. The Plan defines success as achieving harvestable runs of salmon, i.e. abundance.

Significant work over the past several years, in consultation with commercial fishers and others, has resulted in the adoption of Harvest matrices for Lower Columbia River tule fall chinook and coho, to permit harvest while reducing risk to naturally spawning salmonid populations. These matrices are now being used to manage fisheries and will be reviewed at intervals to assess their performance. They are of significance regionally and nationally as a template for thinking of the role of harvest in recovery. An extension of this endeavor now exists to involve commercial fisheries in reducing surpluses of hatchery salmon before they reach spawning grounds, where they compete with wild and naturally spawning salmon.

What are the lessons we learn from this history? Recovery means different things in different eras. Each era may require different tools. Some of these tools may cycle back into favor or be reconfigured as river conditions and societal values change. Definitions also change: What we now lump under one of the H’s, Hatcheries, was once known as “fish propagation.”

Biologists were known as “fish culturists.” Are these more useful and flexible terms today? We also recognize that one generation cannot do it alone; it requires multiple generations and long-term thinkers and long-term commitment. Who are today’s communities of long-term thinkers?

Note also that many of those involved over the past century and a half valued the idea of leaving a legacy for future generations. Is that a message that resonates today?

Finally, although our society has separated out the approach to salmon recovery into 4 H’s, the fifth “H”, History, tells us that hatcheries, harvest, hydro and habitat are braided together in an endless feedback loop here on the Great River of the West, one that extends through time longer than our individual lives, and through space that extends much further than the Columbia River bar. Many reading this article will not see the end of the Fish Recovery Plan. How many other challenges will arise during that time?

We do not have all the answers to recovery, and we will have to rely on people in the future to figure out what is needed in their own era. But we can also rely on people from the past, who had ideas and worked to create solutions.

We need not be captives of our own era; instead, perhaps it is more useful and appropriate to view ourselves as part of the great continuum of people who have fostered our relationships with salmon.

Award-winning author Irene Martin has specialized in lower Columbia River fisheries for more than forty years. She has been a board member on the Lower Columbia Fish Recovery Board, and is currently on the Board of Trustees of the Columbia River Maritime Museum, as well as salmon For All, an organization of fishermen and processors on the Columbia River. She and her husband, Kent, a fourth-generation Columbia River gillnetter, have fished together in Alaska, the Columbia and Willapa Bay.


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