What Can Humans Do to Save the Pacific Northwest’s Iconic Salmon?

The fish is facing an upstream struggle to survive. Can human ingenuity find a solution?

Swimming Upstream Pacific Salmon
Coho salmon, here in full vivid spawning colors, are one of many species of wild Pacific salmon in danger of extinction. Jessica Newley

At about 7 in the evening on May 23, 2013, a truck hauling an oversized load dinged the truss of the Interstate 5 Skagit River Bridge at Mount Vernon, in northwestern Washington State. The driver made it to the other side and watched his mirrors in horror as the northernmost span crashed into the drink. A state trooper tweeted “People and Cars in water.” Two vehicles and three people had gone down with the bridge. The people were saved and they were OK, though bruised and shaken.

The bridge was not OK. Traffic halted, news channels buzzed and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee declared an emergency. The river came to my attention.

The Skagit is one of America’s two million “streams”—geologist lingo for river, creek, bayou, run, runnel, slough or brook. It pours down the rugged North Cascade Range, running southwest out of the mountains past Marblemount, near where, in 1956, Jack Kerouac spent a lonely summer on Desolation Peak looking out for fires. “The Skagit River at Marblemount,” says Kerouac’s doppelgänger in The Dharma Bums, “was a rushing clear snowmelt of pure green....The sun shined on the roils, fighting snags held on.”

The Skagit River watershed is the Puget Sound region’s largest, draining some 3,200 square miles. The headwaters are in Canada, just north of the international border. South of the border, three dams operated by the public utility Seattle City Light harness the river—Ross Dam, Diablo Dam and Gorge High Dam. The river flows down through North Cascades National Park and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. It collects water from the Cascade, Sauk and Suiattle rivers, and from creeks with vivid names like Red Creek and Coal Creek. The river winds its way into the valley it made, past river towns and through the farms of the Skagit Valley. It splits at Fir Island. The North Fork and South Fork define the island, both discharging at its western end into Skagit Bay, part of Puget Sound, that long arm of the sea.

The Skagit and its tributaries are home to five species of wild Pacific salmon—chinook (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), chum (O. keta), pink (O. gorbuscha), sockeye (O. nerka) and coho (O. kisutch), as well as O. mykiss, called steelhead.

One hot August day my writer friend Waverly Fitzgerald and I drive over a bridge to Fir Island. The island’s public road runs alongside a ten-foot-high grassy dike that has a narrow grass road running along its flat top. A sign on a chain barring access to the dike road reads “No Trespassing. Property of Dike District 22.” On the river side of the dike, a narrow stretch of woods lines the riverbank. We identify red alder and black cottonwood, and, in the understory, the white-berried snowberry bush.

Fir Island, lower than the river at high water, is flat fields planted in crops and pasture. It’s cut through by sloughs (distributaries in geologist lingo), dotted with “No Trespassing” signs and with the occasional house and barn, a few elevated on stilts. Stilts seem to us a good idea.

We find a beach near a bend in the South Fork, sand punctuated by pebbles and piles of woody debris. Here in the delta, the river is wide and running slow. It’s the color of jade. The sky is August Northwest: a thick, pale cloud cover admitting streaks of blue. The sun shines down. There’s something calming about sitting beside a river. There’s something spiritual about it, not that I can put my finger on what, nor want to.

Down by the riverside a man in khaki pants, a khaki shirt and a floppy khaki hat stands pole fishing. I’m at the back of the beach reclining against a monster fallen western red cedar, its craggy driftwood-dead trunk white as bone, its twigs draped with desiccated algae. The river is at least 30 feet distant but the algae tells me it’s been up here. Waverly and I write in our notebooks, sketching the landscape in words.

We poke around the island and end our day on the marshy western end, in view of Skagit Bay. Here we walk the dike into wetlands preserved as the Skagit Wildlife Area, full of cattails and marsh grasses, bull thistle (purple flowers) and prickly sow-thistle (yellow flowers), red alders standing in water, their trunks whitened by some sort of lichen. We see dragonflies. We see squadrons of Canada geese flying in formation. We see swallows swooping.

The river and its valley are named for the Lushootseed-speaking people who fished here for thousands of years and who still fish here. The precontact Indian salmon fisheries of Puget Sound, and of the disconnected but not so distant Columbia River, were enormous managed fisheries, with the catch, in the words of environmental historian Joseph E. Taylor III, in his book Making Salmon, “fully comparable to the [later] industrial fishery during its heyday.” Yet it was a sustainable fishery with customs (such as taking down weirs—stream-spanning nets—at night), rules (such as forbidding the taking of spawning fish—those laying eggs and depositing sperm) and rituals (such as the first-fish ceremony) that honored salmon as a spirit being and in the process permitted a sustainable portion of the run to continue fighting its way upstream to the spawning grounds.

Wild Pacific salmon are delicious to eat. But they mean more than “tasty morsel.” Wild salmon and steelhead are iconic of wildlife, of indigenous Northwest lifestyles, of the streams they spawn in, of the ocean they spend half their lives in. Wild Pacific salmon stand for the Pacific Northwest.

Swimming Upstream 2
Drivers on this I-5 stretch, 70,000 a day, detoured through local business districts. Elaine Thompson/AP Images

They also stand for our present ecological emergency, what scientists term the Sixth Great Extinction, caused by global warming, invasive species and habitat degradation.

The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity states that the world’s ecosystems are at risk of “rapid degradation and collapse” unless “swift, radical and creative action” is taken. Species-extinction discourse is embroiled in a numbers game, to wit: How many species are there? What is a normal rate of extinction? How far above a normal rate have we veered? It seems that dozens of species go extinct every day, at least a thousand times the normal rate.

In the Pacific Northwest, 19 populations of wild salmon and steelhead are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. On the Skagit these include chinook and steelhead. These are, of course, extant runs. Salmon have already gone extinct in 40 percent of their historical range.

We humans, though, are clever and resourceful. Case in point: the I-5 Skagit River Bridge. In one month flat after the historic collapse, a new temporary bridge, a steel modular thing assembled on site, was carrying traffic across the Skagit, albeit slower traffic.

By mid-September of 2013, less than four months post-mishap, a permanent concrete span replaced the emergency modular span. In one coordinated all-night extravaganza of bridgework, the temporary span was slipped off the piers and the permanent span slipped into its place.

The formula: engineering skill and political will. Might this winning combination also work for wild Pacific salmon?

Salmon begin life as embryos in a gravel nest (called a redd) at the bottom of a cold freshwater stream. They live in fresh water through developmental stages that include fry, parr (with black stripes called parr marks) and smolts.

During smoltification, the fish begin migrating out to sea, undergoing physiological changes in blood chemistry and in appearance (they grow scales and turn silver) as their metabolism adjusts to salt water.

Adult salmon live in the cold ocean—for them both warming and acidification are bad news. They eat and grow for one to four years. The largest and among the most threatened, the chinook, grows to 20 or 30 pounds; some remarkable specimens reach 100 pounds.

At some point adult fish begin “homing”—migrating back to their natal stream, fighting their way upstream to spawn. This is why we term them anadromous, from the Greek anadromos, running up.

The female digs a nesting pocket in the gravel streambed by lying on her side and whipping her tail. She lays her eggs, and the male, fighting other males for the privilege, fertilizes them. The female then covers the eggs with more gravel. After this once-in-a-lifetime mating, both male and female die. (Steelhead, though, can spawn more than once.)

The carcasses of spawned-out salmon bring a load of nutriments from the ocean back to otherwise nutrient-poor rivers. Bears, foxes, wolves, eagles, wrens and ravens feed on salmon flesh. Even salmon fry feed on the flesh of their parent generation.

Each run of salmon—each population spawning in a particular river at a particular time—is genetically distinct. These distinct local breeding populations have adapted with exquisite precision to their exact home stream. Reproductively isolated, they are called in regulatory lingo Evolutionarily Significant Units, or ESUs. A key goal in restoring wild salmon runs is preserving not only the species but also the genetic diversity within each species—preserving the ESUs.

Salmon, whether coming or going, require protected pools and quiet side channels to rest in. These were once supplied by numerous sloughs that bisected the flood plains and by woody debris—snags—that fell into the river from heavily forested Puget Sound riverbanks.

But a boat does not want a snag. So we come to the historic Skagit River logjam, the mother of all snags. For more than 100 years before 1876, this logjam, which teemed with salmon, blocked navigation. It extended for two miles in the lower reaches of the river. It was 30 feet thick, thick enough to walk across, and Upper Skagit Indians maintained a long-established portage trail to carry canoes around it.

In 1876 a couple of enterprising pioneers undertook to remove the logjam, hoping to profit from the lumber. Profit they did not—the logs were rotten—but in three years of work, a navigation channel was achieved.

The campaign to clear the Skagit of snags, and indeed, to clear the nation’s rivers of snags, exceeded by far the channel requirements of vessels. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began clearing Puget Sound rivers in the 1880s, and between 1890 and 1910 removed from the Skagit an average of 3,000 snags a year. The Skagit is its own river but it could stand for most any American river—dredged, bank-armored, dammed, diked, cleared of snags.

Beyond navigational improvements, industrial capitalism and its enterprises wreaked havoc on the wild salmon of the Pacific Northwest. Loggers built splash dams, blocking a stream to build up a force of water, releasing it each day or week to shoot logs (and the streambed) downstream. Logging roads eroded hills and caused landslides; silt buried redds. Canneries wasted fish, driving salmon runs to extinction. Sawmills clogged streams with sawdust. Farmers and householders cleared land down to the water’s edge, and streams silted up and warmed up. Industry fouled the waters. Dams provided inadequate fish ladders or no fish ladders (underwater steps that enable fish to traverse the dam). The first hatchery was built in 1895; early hatchery managers ignored fish biology even after it was understood.

Hatcheries remain big in Washington State, though hatchery management has changed (and is changing). The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Indian tribes (who have treaty fishing rights) and the federal government run 146 hatcheries that release millions of fish each year for harvest by recreational and commercial fishers, a harvest that contributes at least $1 billion to the state economy.

The Fish and Wildlife Department, in cooperation with tribal fisheries, establishes fishing seasons, fishing rules and catch limits. Hatcheries clip the adipose fins of hatchery fish so fishers can easily tell them from wild fish and observe catch limits. There are now hatcheries run with the sole purpose of aiding wild fish recovery. But most are production hatcheries.

High in the Skagit River Basin, on Clark Creek (a tributary of the Cascade, which is a tributary of the Skagit), the Fish and Wildlife Department operates the Marblemount Fish Hatchery. This hatchery raises a highly domesticated stock called Chambers Creek steelhead.

Hatchery fish are less fit than wild fish, which would be OK if hatchery stock did not interbreed with the wild stock. But a major study in 2013, using sophisticated genetic analysis, found hybrids—wild plus hatchery—within wild steelhead runs. In addition, hatchery fish eat wild fish and compete with them for other food. The study concluded that hatchery releases had “a highly significant and negative effect” on wild steelhead. The more hatchery fish released into the Skagit, the fewer wild fish returned to spawn.

This study was funded by the National Marine Fisheries Service and Seattle City Light and led by the Skagit River System Cooperative, the tribal fishery on the lower Skagit. Most everybody who is anybody on the Skagit participated: the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, Seattle City Light, the Swinomish Tribal Community Planning Department, the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe and the science-based environmental group Wild Fish Conservancy.

On March 31, 2014, the Wild Fish Conservancy filed a lawsuit against the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, seeking an injunction against the release of Chambers Creek steelhead into the Skagit and other Puget Sound waters. The department ultimately settled, with the most important result for the Skagit being that the Marblemount Fish Hatchery will place no Chambers Creek steelhead into the Skagit watershed for 12 years, allowing wild runs a chance to recover and providing an opportunity for scientific research. The settlement is controversial, since tribal fisheries and many sport anglers strongly support hatchery releases, believing them necessary for fishing to continue.

Other restoration efforts are also contentious. In the Skagit Valley, fishing interests, including the tribes, often butt heads with farming interests. The problem is this: Salmon need tidal wetlands to be restored, and they need the lower reaches, including creeks, to become cooler again, which involves replanting stream banks with native vegetation. Restoring wetlands and stream banks requires land and adequate flows of water.

About 70 percent of the historic wetlands of the Skagit Valley have been lost, mostly to agriculture. This is a major agricultural valley, producing some 80 crops and adding some $600 million annually to the local economy. And the valley is rapidly urbanizing, putting pressure on the agricultural land base and on water.

A pilot project led by the Nature Conservancy, the tribal Skagit River System Cooperative and the Western Washington Agricultural Association works at preserving farmland while also restoring wetlands. Other projects restore riverbanks, engineer snags and replace obsolete culverts with new ones that let fish pass. And today Seattle City Light manages the flow of the dams to prevent the dewatering of redds.

The controversies surrounding salmon are complicated, but the river is still a river, still the color of jade, still running wide and deep in the lower reaches. Can we save it, along with its once-abundant runs of wild salmon? We have a chance, I believe, if we have the will—as we had the will to rebuild the Skagit River Bridge. If.

The river had its poet—Robert Sund, who died in 2001. He captured the river the way I want to leave it with you. Sund lived in a shack on stilts on a distributary named Ship Creek on old maps. One night after rowing back to his tidal-marsh abode, he wrote, “Alone again, / I see the silence still has / a home for me.” Sitting alone on the old river, he wrote: “the cat-tails belong to the blackbird, / the willow belongs to beaver, / the mud belongs to minnows and frogs...” And again, “All night / the clouds drift over. / All night, salmon gather— / first of the run.” 

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