Northwest Fish: Recovery in the Balance


European settlers of the Pacific Northwest started commercial salmon fishing in the mid-1800s, with the peak harvest of Columbia River chinook salmon in 1883. In the decades that followed, many factors contributed to the decline in native fish stocks, including fish harvesting techniques, hydroelectric development, urbanization, industrialization, agricultural practices, forestry practices and changes in ocean productivity. Currently, several species of fish are listed under the Endangered Species Act ( ESA ) as endangered or threatened, with others under review for potential listing.

Awareness and action toward fish recovery efforts in the Pacific Northwest has shown some progress, although results are questionable. In the last 10 years, more than $1 billion has been spent on recovery programs, with the majority of these investments showing little success.During the same time period, the Forest Service has increased protection for watersheds and aquatic habitat through new land and resource management plans. These protections include limiting fish harvest levels in watersheds, reducing road construction and preserving riparian areas. State forest practice rules in Oregon and Washington also have been significantly modified over the years to provide greater protection. Oregon recently implemented further stream protection rules for state and private lands.

Just as the biological benefits of these practices will not be realized overnight, neither will habitat problems that have evolved over time likewise be cured immediately. Habitat restoration can only be accomplished through regional consensus and cooperation of all affected groups.


  • 1. The potential for increased number of ESA listings without thorough investigation or balanced research.
  • 2. Complexity of selective fishing to isolate listed species from stronger fish stocks.
  • 3. Economic impact to Northwest economy by limiting or eliminating commercial,sport and tribal fishing.
  • 4. Lack of measurable biological objectives in past listings, and lack of involvement from related environmental and economic interests, resulting in minimal progress in resolving mutual concerns.
  • 5. Acknowledgment of a wide diversity of interests impacted in analyzing the fish and riparian issues including forest practices, hydroelectric development, urban expansion, industrial growth, agricultural practices, ocean/marine management and commercial/sport/tribal fishing groups.
    Current ESA Listings

    There are several stocks of anadromous (ocean migrating) fish listed for protection under the ESA. The most notable include: 1) Snake River Sockeye Salmon; 2) Snake River Fall Chinook Salmon, 3) Snake River Spring/Summer Chinook Salmon, and 4) Sacramento River Winter Chinook Salmon. Others under study for potential listing or have been proposed for listing include Sea-Run Cutthroat Trout, Steelhead Trout, Coho Salmon, Chum Salmon and Pink Salmon. Additionally, there are stocks of resident (non-ocean migrating) fish that are either currently listed or under consideration for listing such as the Bull Trout, Oregon Chub, Lost River Sucker and Shortnose Sucker.

    Species-Specific Concerns
    Snake River Salmon have drawn much attention to the Pacific Northwest salmon issue. This fish has a heritage linked to the region, given its cultural and spiritual value to area residents. For decades, the species has been a major component of commercial, sport and tribal fishing. The recovery of the species will cause significant social and economic impact to the region given this fish travels hundreds of miles and crosses many dams on its journey to and from the Pacific Ocean. While the Snake River Salmon stocks have been listed for several years, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has yet to issue a draft recovery plan or designate habitat for these fish. This agency is specified in the ESA with jurisdiction to protect and restore anadromous fish. NMFS released its proposed recovery plan in 1995. The agency is analyzing the thousands of comments it received and plans to issue a final in 1996.

    2) Coho Salmon, a species comprised of many stocks along the coastal region from northern California to Alaska, has not yet been listed. NMFS completed its status review of the species and proposed listing the coho salmon in 1995, impacting the northern California and Oregon coastlines. The current moratorium on ESA listings has delayed any final decision. A myriad of issues involve the Coho, including poor ocean conditions, overharvesting, water withdrawals and diversions, hatchery practices and habitat degradation.

    3) Steelhead Trout, an anadromous form of rainbow trout, is also undergoing status review by NMFS. This review includes California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho. NMFS is expected to propose some steelhead runs for listing once the moratorium is lifted.

    4) Bull Trout, considered to be a resident fish, has been petitioned for ESA protection. As this species is not anadromous, it falls under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). In 1994 the agency decided that while the fish warranted listing, it would not do so at the time due to higher priorities. Instead, the bull trout was added to the Category 1 species list monitored by the FWS, and was to have been reviewed again in July, 1995. Lawsuits have been filed to force the immediate listing.

    Hydroelectric Factors
    Large hydroelectric projects along the Snake and Columbia Rivers have blocked upstream passage, permanently reducing the natural range of salmon by at least 60%. The reservoirs behind these dams also pose risks to downstream migrating salmon. In addition to the major rivers and dams, smaller dams used for power and/or flood control and irrigation diversion also exist on virtually every major coastal stream.

    Several alternatives are either in use, or under consideration for fish recovery. Installing fish passage devices for downstream and upstream migration is a costly yet feasible alternative. Water rights are already over-allocated, and would require the sale or trade of rights now owned by other interests. Increasing gas flow meter over and around dams is highly controversial since it:1)requires diverting reservoirs and other water storage from agricultural and other uses; and 2) is not supported by credible biological data.

    Harvest Factors
    The impact of limiting commercial, sport and tribal fishing has been devastating to the Pacific Northwest, and will only become worse with future restrictions. While the moratorium on fishing may make sense biologically, the situation is not that simple. Depressed (weak) stocks commingle with strong stocks that are not threatened. Consequently, many fish harvestingtechniques aimed at only strong stocks unfortunately take weak stocks as well.

    Management of harvests has been accomplished by setting a harvest rate or percentage. This impacts both weak and strong stocks at the same level in mixed stock fisheries. High harvest rates of 80-90% may be sustained with hatchery production efficiencies, although these rates also reduce weak stocks proportionately. Regardless of techniques used to lower the incidence of depressed fish stock harvest, it should be clear that a mandate of the ESA is a prohibition of taking a listed species. As such, there may be no alternative but to eliminate the harvest of these fish, including incidental harvest.

    Hatchery Factors
    Historically, hatcheries in the Pacific Northwest were built to mitigate the effects of hydroelectric projects, particularly the loss of large areas of habitat caused by impoundments. Over time, hatcheries have created two distinct problems: 1) a dilution of the wild gene pool, and 2) high hatchery rates leading to high harvest rates.

    Through introduction of genes from non-local fish and subsequent interbreeding over numerous generations, some stocks have lost their original wild genes. Additionally, though targeting strong hatchery stocks, the high harvest rates have simultaneously included the incidental taking of weak stocks.

    Habitat Factors
    Many believe fish habitat will be restored immediately by simply reducing the number of trees cut in federal forests or the herds of cows grazing on range land. This is a simplistic approach to a very complex problem, given the number of related factors mentioned above that all impact fish recovery. Habitat issues are extremely diverse, given the various needs for spawning, rearing, migration and feeding. To further complicate the issue, each species of fish has different requirements for habitat. These include various temperature ranges, stream gradients and food sources.

    Past forest practices causing adverse impacts on streams have either been eliminated (such as splash dams) or modified over the years to provide for protection of aquatic habitat. Large woody debris, once removed from streams to prevent flooding and improve upstream migration, is now left in place or restored to create pools and cover for fish.

    The ocean is another habitat issue that is generally ignored. Very little is known about marine productivity and salmonid behavior in the ocean. Most fishery managers have assumed that marine productivity is consistently good. Recent research, though, indicates ocean current patterns and related weather patterns such as El Ni¤o greatly impact marine productivity. With some fish species spending one to five years in the ocean and gaining 90% or more of their body weight in the marine environment, ocean conditions are a critical piece of the puzzle. This is particularly true, given the number of eggs carried by the female fish is directly related to her body weight.


    • A) Installation of fish passage devices to accommodate both upstream and downstream migrating species.
    • B) Water rights sales or trades to reallocated water for fish.
    • C) Moratorium on commercial, sport and tribal fishing to allow species to rebuild their numbers.
    • D) Changes in fishing practices to encourage selective harvesting of strong, non-threatened stocks.
    • E) Mandated biologically-based research to determine sound harvest and release procedures for weak stocks to prohibit taking of endangered species.
    • F) Refocused efforts of hatchery management emphasizing quality versus quantity.
    • G) Separation of hatchery management from agencies and parties directly benefiting from high production.
    • H) Increase of water flows in and around dams based on sound biological knowledge.
    • I) Involvement of all entities associated with recovery in future planning, given the scope of decisions impact the economic, cultural and spiritual livelihood of numerous regional groups.

    Source: Northwest Forest Resource Council, April 1997