BY JON BELL
// Photo by Joseph Eastburn
Some shine a flawless metallic silver, looking strong, vibrant and as if they’re on a mission. Others lumber by, darkened, dinged and ready to find a long, final resting place. Some are huge and heavy; others are slim and small. All are heading in the same direction together, upstream, and all just keep coming.
They are the storied Columbia River salmon — Chinook, coho, a sprinkling of pinks — making their way through the fish ladders and past the viewing windows at the Bonneville Dam near Cascade Locks in late September. At times, so many swim by in an endless parade, they nearly fill the windows and block out the light from above. As of October 1, more than 1.2 million spring, summer and fall Chinook had passed through Bonneville — the largest salmon runs since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed the dam and started counting in 1938. Driving the strong returns was a mix of optimal ocean conditions, improved dam passage for adult fish returning upstream and juveniles heading out to the ocean, and several years of habitat restoration projects.
Yet despite the solid and hopeful returns this year, the numbers tell only part of the story. While more than a million fish may seem like plenty, it’s a far cry from the estimated 15 million that used to come back to the Columbia every year before dams, development, loss of habitat, overfishing and water diversion for agriculture came into play. Thirteen species of Columbia River salmon and steelhead are still considered endangered. In addition, close to 85% of the fish coming back this year are hatchery fish, not wild. There’s a good chance, based on historical trends, that 2013’s high counts will drop back down again.
This year’s salmon returns on the Columbia River symbolize much about the big-picture salmon scene in Oregon, not only on its rivers, but out in the Pacific as well. It is a situation whereby commercial salmon fishermen, hit hard by disastrous seasons and even full-on closures over the past decade, are finding a little relief, albeit temporary. Last year’s 1.9-million-pound haul was below the 2.4 million pounds of 2011, but prices rose enough to value the fishery at around $6.7 million for both years. That’s relatively small compared to other fisheries in Oregon’s commercial fishing industry, which brought in total revenue of $128 million last year. The 2012 crab harvest, for example, was worth $29 million; pink shrimp hit $25 million and groundfish topped $24 million. The improved salmon outlook for this year adds even a little more promise for the 400 or so active salmon vessels in Oregon.
The salmon scene here includes a wide range of stakeholders — fishermen, tribes, conservation groups, farmers and ranchers, government agencies and others — working to restore and preserve valuable salmon habitat and further improve dam passage. At the same time, many of those players also have to balance their own interests, be it power generation or crop irrigation, with those of Oregon’s salmon. There is innovation here, too. Researchers are using genetic information to better manage fish stocks. That same technology is allowing consumers to track the salmon they eat back to the fisherman who caught it. And progressive restaurateurs and suppliers, while still limited in how much Oregon salmon they can offer, are raising the bar for sustainably caught salmon and other seafood in Oregon and around the world.
Oregon Business cast a big net and reeled in a mix of people and projects that are working to not only revitalize the salmon economy in Oregon, but to restore the Northwest’s signature fish for future generations to come. In 2013, the outlook for a thriving salmon economy is ambiguous, but the stakes are clear.
“The good news is that if we do the right things in the right order, we can bring the commercial salmon industry back from where it is now to be many times larger than it is,” says Glen Spain, Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “For folks like us, that means jobs and dollars and paid-for mortgages and paid-for boats.”