Crashing salmon stocks in California extend to Pacific Northwest

In March, and for the first time since 2008-2009, federal regulators closed all recreational and commercial salmon fishing off the California coast for the remainder of 2023 due to a steep decline of salmon stocks, according to the Pacific Fishery Management Council. 

Further north, in the Pacific Northwest, alarms went off. Columbia River salmon runs remain at a high risk of extinction, according to Northwest Fisheries Science Center’s 2022 five year review, but return numbers looked hopeful. 

Then, in late May, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Department announced salmon and steelhead fishing would be closed as of June 1. The action was in response to an unexpected dive in fish returns and under advisement of the National Marine Fisheries Service in order to stay in compliance with the Endangered Species Act. 

“Rather than pointing fingers at a particular fishery, it’s important to acknowledge the real problem, that there are way too few wild Snake River spring/summer Chinook coming back,” said Tucker Jones, ODFW Columbia River Program Manager. “NOAA’s recent “Rebuilding Interior Columbia Basin Salmon and Steelhead” report acknowledges this, and notes that without aggressive, urgent actions, including restoration of the lower Snake River for Snake River spring/summer Chinook, achieving healthy and abundant populations won’t be possible. While fisheries are playing their critical role in the conservation and recovery story, it’s important that the region continue to push other sectors to do the same.” 

Biologists from Washington, Oregon and Idaho, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and various Tribes agree. The decline in salmon is linked to heavily engineered waterways and rising temperatures due to climate change. Chinook and steelhead salmon both remain at a high risk of extinction, according to the Northwest Fisheries Science Center. In the Salish Sea, the Environmental Protection Agency reported that Chinook salmon populations are down 60% since the Pacific Salmon Commission began tracking salmon abundance in 1984.

Salmon in particular depend on streams and running water. Unlike California, which has a highly altered river system and utilizes much of its water for agriculture, the Northwest has a different issue: it utilizes hydroelectric power, and doing so often requires dams.

“We have dammed our rivers for hydraulic power,” says Chris Anderson, a University of Washington professor and a Fisheries Economist at the School of Aquatic and Fishery Science. “The bad news is that salmon can’t swim up the stream anymore.” 

Dams themselves can create varying water temperatures due to timing of water releases and alterations of waterways. Combine this with a warming trend in Pacific Northwest waters and in the Columbia River as a result of climate change, and we may be looking at a larger problem, says Anderson.

A decline in the salmon population can also have serious impacts on the entire ecosystem. Several species rely on salmon as a key source of food. One population that has been impacted are Southern Resident orcas. 

“The orcas need salmon,” says National Wildlife Federation Communications Manager Jacqueline Koch. And it doesn’t stop there, she said. A recent study shows that population growth is limited by salmon availability. 

The presence of salmon benefits more than 135 fish and wildlife populations, Koch said.

The alarming decline in salmon has begun to shift public opinion toward planning for climate change–now. 

“We’ve got to work together much more effectively and urgently–to educate and engage the public and our policymakers to enact big policy changes that can support the recovery of our wild salmon and steelhead populations,” says Joseph Bogaard, the Executive Director of Save Our Wild Salmon.

Some changes must include restoring rivers by removing harmful dams, allowing more water flow past dams during the fish migration, and by increasing the authorities and resources available to Native American tribes–the original stewards of this region, Bogaard says.

“It is really important for us to be supporting the leadership and activities of Tribes in these sorts of issues, and bringing to bear their expertise and experiences,” Bogaard says.

The Snake River in the fall on the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Photo credit: Darin Martens/US Forest Service

With Save Our Wild Salmon (SOS), Bogaard has been working with others on dam removal in the Lower Snake River to restore access for endangered fish to more than 5,000 miles of ancestral river and stream habitat in Oregon, Idaho and Washington. SOS also helps lead the U.S. NGO Columbia River Treaty Caucus. The 60+ year-old U.S.-Canada Columbia River Treaty is now under negotiation to update or modernize it for the challenges we face in the 21st century. A modernized Treaty must prioritize the ‘health of the river’ and its inhabitants–and the communities that depend upon them. It must also be able to adapt over time in order to minimize the intensifying impacts of the changing climate.

“Individually and collectively, we must embrace new ways of decreasing our footprint, protecting healthy, resilient and life-giving ecosystems, and honoring our connections and relationships with each other and our home lands and waters and their inhabitants,” Bogaard says.

Learn more about our work: National Wildlife Federation, Northern Rockies, Prairies and Pacific Region