The mystery of Canada's huge 2010 salmon runs

On both sides of the border, commercial fishing has reaped a bonanza. But no one really knows why or how to respond, though there are clues about the need for restraint.

Crosscut archive image.

Some of the big sockeye run spawns on Canada's Adams River.

On both sides of the border, commercial fishing has reaped a bonanza. But no one really knows why or how to respond, though there are clues about the need for restraint.

Big, neon-red sockeye salmon with green heads and hooked jaws stream north along the Canadian bank, massed in slack water, shooting into the current upstream, swimming low among the boulders, then rising and resting in the shallows before they tackle the white water just ahead. Already, their carcasses, faded to gray, litter the rocks and gravel of an island toward the other side. The fish form a river within the river, a submerged current of red. They just keep coming. I recall the third stanza of Yeats' "Lapis Lazuli":

On their own feet they came, or on shipboard,

Camel-back, horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,

Old civilizations put to the sword. . . 

Millions of fish are streaming up the Adams River, east of Kamloops in interior British Columbia. The Adams isn't a big river. The water is very clear. There may be 9 million fish. You see them.

The return of the salmon to rivers large and small is, of course, a Northwestern commonplace. But can this seasonal appearance of big fish in small streams, of bright red males competing to fertilize the eggs pinkly visible in the gravel, their bodies half out of the shallow water, chasing each other across the rocks, ever be really commonplace? Certainly, there's nothing commonplace about seeing this many fish. They make you think this is the way it used to be. And this is the way it should be.

The Adams flows south through Shuswap Lake to the south fork of the Thompson River, then to the Fraser and ultimately to salt water, 250 miles away. In a good year, the Fraser River sockeye run dwarfs any other salmon run south of Alaska, and the Fraser's largest spawning population swarms into the Adams River. Every fourth year, when the sockeye run peaks, locals hold an October “Salute to the Sockeye” at Roderick Haig-Brown Provincial Park. (Haig-Brown was a writer, conservationist and fly fisherman who died in 1976.) Each morning, yellow school buses bounce into the grass parking area. Young kids ride their parents' shoulders to the river bank. People push wheelchairs along the dirt trails. Indians sell fry bread from trailers. It's an event.

Look at the fishie, says an excited grade-schooler on a field trip, spotting a red torpedo shape in the water. A teenager on a field trip of his own peers into the shallows and exclaims, they're feakin' big! They are indeed, although even the largest is a lot smaller than the dark bulk of the occasional chinook that lurks in the clear water beside them. (Now that Puget Sound and Columbia River chinook populations have been pushed to the list of threatened and endangered species, Fraser River chinook have become the Southern Resident Killer Whales' — i.e., Puget Sound orcas' — main nosh.)

These fish have followed clockwise gyres through the Pacific, swimming south past Southeast Alaska, then either east or west of Vancouver Island, passing through the Strait of Juan de Fuca or the Johnstone Strait on their way to the Fraser.

An estimated 34.5 million sockeye returned to the big river this year. An estimated 24 million of them were destined for the Shuswap area, primarily to the Adams. The government won't yet take a stab at the number that made it all the way back there, but even if you take out a percentage for Indian and other fishing and for natural deaths along the way, you still have an awful lot of fish.

This is the largest Fraser River run since 1913, the year before a rockslide caused by blasting for railroad construction in Hell's Gate, near Hope, B.C., largely blocked the Fraser to upstream migration. (More sockeye return regularly to Alaska's Bristol Bay, but they're heading for nine different river systems.) Viewed another way, no one younger than about 100 can remember seeing so many sockeye in the Fraser or its tributaries.

No one knew this huge run was coming. And no one can explain it. “Once those fish leave fresh water, they're just in a black box,” says University of Washington Professor of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences Ray Hilborn. “There's no research on the ocean.”

Back in the 1970s, Hilborn explains, when Japanese ships were drift netting American salmon on the high seas, “the U.S. And Canada put a lot of energy into proving those were American and Canadian fish.” At the time, scientists used scale patterns to prove fish came from North America or Asia.

Now, researchers could use sophisticated DNA analysis to find out which river, or even which part of a river system, fish came from. But no one is doing so. Without the political conflict, Hilborn says, “there's just no money for it.”

Without the research, it's hard to figure out what's going on. Are there any good hypotheses for the size of this year's run? “I haven't seen them,” Hilborn says.

This year's sockeye returns have varied widely, depending on the river system. Very few fish came back through Lake Washington. But on the Columbia River, more sockeye — nearly 400,000 — have showed up at Bonneville Dam than at any time since the dam was completed in 1938. Snake River sockeye are doing relatively well, too — at least compared to recent decades, and at least for 2010. Those fish, which spawn in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains, were the first Columbia River system salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act. The population was basically extinct when it was listed in 1991; that year, only one fish made the 900-mile journey up to Redfish Lake. Four years ago, only 52 reached Lower Granite Dam, and only three made it all the way.. Now, the count at Lower Granite has topped 2,000. Wild salmon advocates attribute that not only to favorable ocean conditions but also to the water that a U.S. district court has ordered the feds to spill over the dams every spring for the past five years.

Last year's Fraser River run was a disaster. It capped 20 years of declining runs, and it was so much worse than anyone had expected that the Canadian government formed the Cohen Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River. There was a lot to inquire about: In August, around the time the Cohen Commission announced its research program, commercial fishermen started hauling in more Fraser River sockeye than any of them had ever seen, taking 10,000 or even 15,000 fish in one set of a seine.

They were doing it on both sides of the border. Fraser River sockeye have always made up most of the “Puget Sound” catch. At the turn of the century, fishermen rowed flat-bottomed skiffs up to the San Juans from the lower Sound to net them, camping on the beaches of Lopez and San Juan, and rowing out each morning to fish. The first salmon cannery on Puget Sound was built in 1877 at Mukilteo, for easy access to the Fraser runs. The big canning companies built fish traps on the points and islands where the bulk of the fish swam through.

They pushed out the natives who had fished there for millennia. In 1899, the assistant secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Richard Rathbun, wrote that fish traps had displaced the native reef net fishery at Point Roberts. “After the completion in 1894 of the continuous line of traps commanding the approaches to the big reef,” he wrote, “its value for (native) reef-net fishing seems to have been in great part destoyed and the Indian catches declined so much in consequence as to render the old-time occupation practically unprofitable.”

The trap owners also clung doggedly to their outsized share of the catch. Starting in the late 19th century, Canadians claimed to be concerned about the state of the Fraser River sockeye. No doubt they were. No doubt they were also concerned about the fact that the American fish traps were taking most of the run. The two national governments formed a commission to study the problem, but the canneries didn't want anything to change, and it didn't. After the Hell's Gate rockslide blocked the river, there was clearly good reason to worry about the fish, and the national governments actually came up with treaty language, but the canners still didn't want to part with their share. They influenced Washington's senators, and the rest of the Senate wasn't about to ratify an agreement over Washington's objection.

Then, in the depths of the Depression, populist sentiment turned against the fish traps and the canning companies that owned them. Sport fishermen and purse seiners had always resented the traps. The seiners put up most of the money for a Washington state initiative that would ban them. The sportsmen did most of the work. The campaign was ambiguous, combining but never fully reconciling appeals to conservation and to populism. The main pro-initiative brochure claimed it would “give this great natural resource back to the people instead of leaving it in the hands of a powerful financial minority.”

Trap owners replied that abolishing traps would just leave most of the Fraser River sockeye to the Canadians, that the initiative was not really a conservation measure (true), and that it represented “the effort of the purse seiners to wrest from the pioneers of Washington their means of livelihood.” This was a barely-guarded way of referring to the fact that most trap owners were Anglo-Saxon businessmen and most purse seiners were Slavic, Norwegian, or other immigrants.

(Before the election, the initiative faced a challenge that made its way to the state supreme court. The challengers argued that paid workers had been used to gather signatures in violation of state law — Washington banned paid signature gatherers until 1988, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Meyer v. Grant that a similar Colorado law violated the First Amendment — and that the voters had been deceived. The decision may make you feel a little better about the state of our politics in 2010. As the majority put it in Edwards v Hutchinson, the court had been asked to intervene so that “popular government [could] be rescued from the slough into which it [had] fallen through the machinations of selfish interest.” The court found that “the law . . . makes it a criminal offense to hire or be hired for [the] purpose [of gathering signatures], but nowhere in the statute do we find a word or a line which invalidates the signature of a legal voter because it was obtained by the solicitation of a paid worker.” As for the allegation that the initiative campaign had deceived voters, “[e]ver since popular elections were instituted, in every one held, some one, perhaps many voters, have been deceived, and so long as the political field remains free and open . . . there is no way to prevent prejudices being appealed to; and voters to a greater or lesser degree will always be deceived.”)

Initiative 77 passed in a landslide. With fish traps banned from Washington waters, Canadians started catching most of the sockeye. All of a sudden, a treaty that would guarantee the United States half the catch looked pretty good.

The Senate ratified a treaty the following year. Under its terms, the U.S. and Canada would jointly manage the fishery through an international commission. Beginning in 1944, fish ladders would be built around the Hells Gate rockslide. They were built, and the Fraser River runs were at least partially restored.

That didn't end squabbling over the fish. In 1985, the two nations signed a Pacific Salmon Treaty. But the salmon agreement didn't cover all the bases. It didn't give U.S. fishers a share of the fish that swam east of Vancouver Island. And it didn't give Canadians a share of the fish caught off Southeast Alaska. In 1997, upset about Alaskans catching their fish, British Columbian fishermen blockaded the Alaska state ferry Malaspina in Prince Rupert harbor.

That one got settled, too. But even now, some conservationists complain, the U.S. has bargained away threatened Puget Sound chinook for an expanded opportunity to catch Fraser River sockeye. We're not catching those threatened salmon, so we don't have to worry about them. "This is a shell game," says Wild Fish Conservancy executive director Kurt Beardslee. His and other conservation groups sued over the current Puget Sound chinook harvest plan, arguing that since Canadians were catching even more Puget Sound chinook than anticipated, NMFS should take another look at the impact of fishing inside the Sound. The agency responded basically that because Canadian harvest had a year-to-year effect, it shouldn't be incorporated into a multi-year analysis. The court deferred to the agency's expertise.

If there were this many fish every four years, there would still be great pressure to catch every last fish that wasn't absolutely necessary to perpetuate the run. Even though no living fisherman had ever seen anything like this year's haul, even though all the freezer space along the coast was full and the price for sockeye in Vancouver stores had plummeted, some Canadian fishing interests complained that they should have been allowed to catch more fish. They have raised the familiar argument that beyond the minimal number needed to perpetuate the run, any salmon not netted or hooked is simply wasted. And too many wasted fish can make the entire salmon run crash.

(That notion of waste has also played a part in this year's skirmishing over who gets to net salmon in the Fraser River. First Nations groups wanted to limit the fishery more than the Canadian government did. The argument that some of the huge Fraser run would simply be wasted if no one caught it bolstered the government side.)

This theory, embraced by some of the people who regulate salmon fishing on both sides of the border, is implausible at best. As the authors of a Pacific Fisheries Resource Conservation Council technical paper wrote six years ago, it "is difficult to see how statements like this could be generally true, considering how much larger both salmon runs and escapements would have been before development of commercial fishing.”

The old tales, probably apocryphal, of streams so full of salmon that you could walk across on their backs without getting your feet wet — and the more prosaic fact of streams so full of salmon that you could back a horse-drawn wagon up to the water's edge and pitchfork them into the wooden bed — had a corollary: stream banks and shallows covered with rotting carcasses.

These fish weren't "wasted," any more than this year's sockeye will be after they spawn in the Adams River and drift in the current toward Shuswap Lake. Salmon that have fed for years in the open ocean take nitrogen and other nutrients from the sea to the watersheds in which they spawn. Their carcasses nourish the stone flies and other invertebrates that in turn nourish the next generation of salmon fry. And virtually all of God's creatures eat them: Research has found that 83 species devour or at least occasionally nibble on salmon carcasses.

It's not just critters, either. Isotope analysis has found marine nitrogen and carbon in streamside trees. There's reason to believe that the largest Northwestern conifers have grown in places where the nitrogen from rotting salmon has nourished them.

“The flow of nutrients back upstream via spawning salmon and the ability of watersheds to retain them plays a vital role in determining the overall productivity of salmon runs,” the late Jeff Cedarholm, who pioneered research on salmon carcasses, and colleagues wrote for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “As a seasonal resource, salmon directly affect the ecology of many aquatic and terrestrial consumers, and indirectly affect the entire food web. The challenge for salmon, wildlife, and land managers is to recognize and account for the importance of salmon not only as a commodity resource to be harvested for human consumption, but also for their crucial role in supporting overall ecosystem health.”

But the cornucopia has largely shut down. Cedarholm and colleagues estimated that by the start of this century, returning salmon were bringing back only 3 percent of the nutrients that they once brought.

You'd never know it on the banks of the Adams River. Dead fish litter the stones and gravel of the far shore, bob on snags in the current. Go down to Shuswap Lake, and you'll find that shoreline littered with carcasses, too. Their neon red color has faded to gray. Birds have pecked their eyes out. Their stench fills the air. As my wife says, it's the smell of abundance.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.