Why are Salmon Declining in the Northwest?

Posted on: Thursday, 6 December 2018

Salmon is one of the distinctive features of Pacific Northwest cuisine. Many of us will feel our mouths water when we think of eating salmon dinners that have been freshly baked on hot coals.

But times are not good for catching the salmon in our sea and freshwater habitats. A long-term decline in the size of the catch has occurred, and it has been particularly notable in the past year. The future of salmon harvesting is questionable.

Two well-known Portland fishermen, a father and his son (both named Bill Monroe), talked with Pearl Rotarians on Dec. 4 about some of the factors causing the salmon decline. Their presentation could be viewed as a lecture on the nature of ecosystems since they emphasized the interrelationships on the Pacific coast of humans, nonhuman animals, and the physical environment. Bill Sr. is an outdoors columnist for the Portland Oregonian; Bill Jr. is the owner of Bill Monroe Outdoors.

While admitting that much is unknown about the relationship of salmon numbers to the ecosystem in Oregon water, the two Bills focused on the fact that salmon numbers are heavily affected by the instinctive drive of salmon to return to spawn in the headwaters where they were born. The salmon struggle against the flow of water to the ocean, the elevation rise of the land in the coast interior, and the presence of physical obstacles to their movement.

Bill and Bill especially emphasized the problem of salmon harvest as due to the growing numbers of sea lions who are eating salmon and other fish. Historically, the sea lions have concentrated in Pacific Ocean saltwater areas on the southern U.S. coastline, but literally hundreds of thousands have been moving north along the Pacific coast and into the freshwater areas of rivers such as the Columbia and Willamette. To satisfy their growing needs for food, the sea lions are allegedly eating the fish before they can get home to spawn. Indeed, some have speculated that the growth of the sea lion population has also affected the salmon supply and surviving numbers of the Orca whales who cluster around the San Juan Islands in declining numbers.

Many fishermen remember the “glory” days of their sport when abundant numbers of fish would be caught in major fresh-water rivers such as the Willamette, even in situations where the waterways passed through major cities such as Portland. But those days seem to be gone.

Bill Sr. described the fishing environment in Oregon as “doom and gloom” with many explanations being given for the current problems with the supply of salmon. As he summarized, “Gnarly decisions face salmon managers.” But the Monroes did not project total pessimism about the future of local fishing. Following his pessimistic statements, Bill Sr. told Rotarians, “but there will be seasons," meaning that some supply of salmon would last into the near future.

In the past, governments in the Pacific Northwest have mainly regulated the fishing industry by setting catch quotas during specific seasons. Separate quotas are maintained for Native Americans, due to treaty rights as established by negotiation. Sports fishermen also have individual rights, including quotas, that continue to guarantee their activity. The quota framework is likely to continue, but the supply of fish will significantly affect how the quotas are established in various years.

In their talk, the Monroes seemed caught between two different perspectives on long-term intervention in the environment. On the one hand, they implied that some deregulation of government controls on fishing may be useful to help restore the balance of nature that encouraged high salmon production. On the other hand, they implied that increased government regulation of predators such as the sea lions may be useful to create a physical environment where the salmon may flourish. But underlying all their concerns was a belief that the government has responded mainly to social pressure exerted from organized interest groups such as environmentalists, rather than any serious workable plan to bring back the salmon in large numbers.

Other explanations of salmon supply exist besides the growth of the sea lion population. Many of our freshwater dams have blocked the movement of fish up the ladder to their spawning grounds. The Pacific coastal waters increasingly carry boats and other watercraft that interfere with the activities of major water actors such as the whales and fish. While major efforts have been made to clean up polluted water in Oregon and Washington, the damages from years of poor use may have created unfriendly habits for the salmon.

Text: Pete Guest
Photos: Seth Gardner

Portland Pearl Rotary Club - One of Portland, Oregon's Fastest Growing Clubs