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Fun with Fishes at the Refuge

by Craig Brown
The Columbian, June 14, 2010

Scientist-author details history of interaction between man, fish in Columbia River basin

RIDGEFIELD -- As far as fish go, the Great River of the West seems to offer a relatively simple story. Only 50 species of fish are common in the Columbia River basin, and of those, only 30 are native.

"That's not very many," said Dennis Dauble, a Richland-based author, lecturer and scientist. Sunday, he was in Clark County, where he gave a talk on the history of fish and fishing in the Columbia basin to a small group at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.

But more than 8,000 years of documented interaction between humans and fish weave a complex tale that is playing out today, from bass clubs in Eastern Washington to tribal fishermen along the lower Columbia.

After retiring from a career studying fish for the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Dauble researched historical and modern accounts of the basin, trying to piece together a history of fish and humans. His resulting book is "Fishes of the Columbia Basin."

Fish and human interactions go back to the earliest days. Discoveries in areas around The Dalles Ore., and Kettle Falls, in Stevens County, provide the evidence of humans fishing for salmon 8,000 years ago. Other species were important too. Suckers, or mullet, provided spring's first food. Even the boniest fish such as the sandroller or three-spine stickleback were used, with their needle-like bones providing tools.

Natives concentrated their fishing efforts near waterfalls and rapids, where salmon would pause on their journey upstream. They caught the fish using spears, dip nets, gigs, seines made of willow bark, weirs and intricate baskets that naturally lured fish and then trapped them. The latter could be used in winter, set under ice and retrieved later. They were particularly useful in catching whitefish, Dauble said.

Fish even provided spiritual value. Some tribes believed the prickly sculpin, an unusual looking fish, had predictive powers or could influence weather. White explorers later called it the "Indian doctor fish," Dauble said.

The first naturalists

Native people of the Columbia basin recognized about 20 fish species, both migratory and resident. Lewis and Clark documented 31 on their exploration from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean. Of those, 12 were new to science.

However, Lewis and Clark found only 11 species of fish west of the continental divide.

Though the Corps of Discovery were the first naturalists on the river, their journals show some basic misunderstanding of what they saw. They tended to classify fish by color, for one thing, not realizing that some salmon change color during their life cycle. Lewis and Clark also thought that a "porpus" was a fish, not a mammal.

As Dauble tried to reconstruct their discoveries by reading through their journals and other accounts, the going could be difficult. "The challenge is the descriptions are very weak," he said, leaving a modern historian to ponder exactly what fish the famous explorers were talking about.

Nonetheless, they did manage to identify the chinook salmon as the most important fish in the river, and also realized the importance of the eulachon, or smelt.

"That was probably their favorite fish," Dauble said of Lewis and Clark, who ate a lot of it as they wintered over at Fort Clatsop from 1805-06. They enjoyed its high oil content, and called it "luscious." They also documented how the Chinook people would trade smelt oil with other tribes. They carried the oil in containers made of kelp; their routes became known as "grease trails."

As Dauble perused his studies, he found other explorers provided more information about Columbia basin fish:

Population pressure

The coming of settlers brought pressure to bear on fish populations. By the 1880s, non-native species such as bass and catfish were being introduced into the river, and dozens of salmon canneries near the river's mouth packed as many as 600,000 cases of salmon per year, Dauble said.

In addition to overfishing, many other human activities have affected salmon. Fur traders removed beavers, which had created diverse habitat with their dams. Mining caused erosion and pollution; logging changed the ability of ecosystems to store water. Dams created reservoirs, changing the basic character of the Columbia River.

Still, "the number one mortality for fishes is harvest," he said.

With competing interests, efforts to help the populations rebound and the multiple demands made on the Columbia River and its tributaries, a lot more history will be written about the interaction of fish and humans.

Craig Brown
Fun with Fishes at the Refuge
The Columbian, June 14, 2010

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