Wild Pacific salmon runs are indigenous to the Northwest, but most Pacific salmon you would find today are hatchery fish. There are fewer salmon (Pacific and Atlantic) than ever in recorded history. Fewer than 60,000 Chinook or “King” salmon returned to spawn last season, as opposed to 800,000 ten years ago in 2005. For thousands of years salmon have been a staple of the people of the Northwest. Salmon have been used for many practical purposes from food, to jewelry, to medicines, and are even depicted in art.
The settling of the west gave rise to overfishing and depletion of this natural resource, especially as America’s population and overconsumption continued to grow. Today we see the devastation in numbers caused by overfishing, overdevelopment, dams, and environmental destruction, which endangers and destroys this once bountiful water dweller.
There has been much debate over how to overcome these environmental effects, while conserving this way of life we Pacific North Westerners know and love. The species’ decline has grown substantially, increasing some even to the point of extinction, and something should be done to help prevent that, since salmon in the Northwest are a symbol that unifies and binds the four states that make up the region.
In the early 1900’s the word, “conservation” had a very different meaning. During this early period, government officials promoted conservation along with the construction of major dams such as the Bonneville and the Elwha along with many others. These dams, used for irrigation, logging, and hydroelectric power, while helping growth of community, was actually killing off wild pacific salmon species. By creating low levels of sediment delivered to rivers, eventually these dammed rivers’ spawning grounds would erode and reduce the number of areas where salmon could lay their eggs. Hatchery programs were implemented as a means to reverse this crisis, but the problem with this solution is it’s complete dependency on hatcheries to make up for losses in natural repopulation. Indiscriminate planning of hatchery stock into wild salmon areas actually reduced natural production due to food shortages for the wild salmon, and interbreeding between hatchery and wild salmon. Interbreeding leads to weaker offspring with lower rates of survival.
Ultimately, program managers concluded that hatcheries were a success, but the truth of the matter was that hatchery fish actually contributed to the continual decline of wild salmon. Along with the damming of rivers and poor hatchery practices, there are also problems of overfishing and overdevelopment also known as, urban sprawl. Urban sprawl has turned millions of acres of wild grounds into expanding suburbs.
Although devastation has occurred, there is still hope for the wild salmon population through the Pacific Salmon Treaty. The U.S. and Canada have come together to reduce commercial salmon fishing over a period of ten years. That along with the recent tear down of the largest dam in U.S. history, the Elwha dam in our own Washington state, we may soon be seeing an increase in Chinook and wild pacific salmon population and habitats, As time goes on we still must use common sense and common courtesy in order to preserve this natural resource for future generations to enjoy. To learn more on the Pacific Salmon and Pacific Salmon research, as well as ways you can help, please visit wfrc.usgs.org.