Strongest Columbia Salmon Run Since 1938
by Jeff Barnard of the Associated Press
MAUPIN, Ore. -- After a spring and summer chasing salmon with a boat, Harold Blackwolf savored fishing the way his ancestors did. Tying a rope around his waist, he stepped to the edge of a wooden platform and swung a net affixed to a 15-foot pole into the churning water of Sherars Falls on the Deschutes River, hauling up a thrashing chinook.
"There were guys who used to wonder how such a little guy could pull those big salmon out," said Blackwolf, who stands about 5-foot-7. "I would say, 'Because I'm ready. My whole body is ready to pull.' It's a good feeling. I haven't had that feeling in a long time."
The joy Blackwolf felt providing for the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs was shared by sports fishers as well. The 3 million salmon and steelhead that came back to the Columbia River this year represent the strongest run since 1938. But with prices depressed by a glut of foreign farmed fish, commercial fishers tied up their boats in protest.
Another good return is expected next year, but this year's drought and California energy crisis left little water in the Columbia for fish, and downstream migration survivals were the lowest on record — a sure sign of bad times ahead. "The abundance and joy you saw on the river has little likelihood of repeating itself in 2003 and 2004" when those fish are due to come back, said Charles Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
The credit for this year's abundance goes more to Mother Nature than the hand of humans, said Steve Williams, assistant director of fisheries for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. A stretch of rainy winters the past five years made for unusually good survival for the young fish making their spring migration to the ocean. When they got to the ocean, a rare combination of winds, temperatures, and currents jump-started the food chain by welling up nutrients from the ocean floor.
Next year is projected to be another good return, but no one is proclaiming salmon victory. Drought left little water in rivers, where young salmon spend up to two years before migrating to the ocean.
California's energy crisis led the Bonneville Power Administration to declare an emergency, diverting what water there was — and the young salmon in it — to turbines and away from spillways in the federal hydroelectric dams on the Columbia.
Fish coming down the Snake River were barged around the dams, but not so in the Columbia. What little water was spilled over dams came after most of the fish had passed. The result was terrible downstream survival rates as low as 19 percent for mid-Columbia steelhead, according to the Fish Passage Center, which tracks the migration.
In contrast, this year's returning adults became a bonanza for the local sports fishing economy, filling motels, boat ramps, and convenience stores with happy anglers and freezers with fish. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife reported 158,000 angler trips — one person fishing for one day &3151 at the mouth of the Columbia this season. That's more than double last year's tally and more than 17 times the trips in 1994. Another 70,000 angler trips were estimated along the Columbia's tributaries.
"I'm willing to bet this is one of the few bright spots in the Northwest economy," said Liz Hamilton of the Northwest Sport Fishing Industry Association.
But that's not so for commercial fishers. Columbia River gillnetters tied up their boats in September and gave away fish on the steps of the Capitols of Oregon and Washington to protest prices held down by a market flooded with farm-raised salmon from Chile, Canada, and Norway.
"We waited for years for these runs," said Jack Marincovich, executive director of the Columbia River Fishermen's Protective Union. "Our gas is up to $2 a gallon. We have to repair our boats. It's gotten to the point you're money ahead if you leave your boat tied up."
As the Northwest has struggled to reverse declining salmon returns the past 20 years, farmed fish have grown from a novelty to more than half the world supply, consistently available year-round. That has shifted the motivation for salmon restoration away from the commercial fishing that once dominated the resource and toward cultural, recreational, and biological reasons, said economist Hans Radke.
For Blackwolf, an American Indian, seeing the salmon return in such numbers is about going back to the ways the Creator taught his ancestors to live, which includes fishing. "We hold the salmon as a provider for the people," he said. "The way it was told to me by my elders, in order for the salmon to keep coming back, the Indians need to fish. The Creator placed them here to be used."
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