The Rise of Northwest Ocean Harvest

Ocean trolling for salmon began between 1905 and 1915 as fishermen tried to get around limited fishing seasons introduced on the river in order to allow more salmon upriver to spawn.37 Trolling was particularly successful with chinook salmon because, as writer Bruce Brown has explained, “[u]nlike sockeye, chinook salmon will strike at a baited line in the ocean. This phenomenon, which is due to their preference for feeding on fish rather than plankton, has made them one of the principal targets of the growing commercial and sport troll fleets.”38

“By the 1960s the trollers were the dominant factor in the coastal fishery, often accounting for over half the total catch of chinook and coho in Washington. Between 1940 and 1970, Washington trollers increased their catch of chinook nearly 100,000 to 958,408 fish. The key to the trollers’ success was simple: first shot at the fish. The history of commercial fishing on the Pacific is essentially a tale of one group after another finding a way to fish in front of the others".39

Since 1970, the trollers’ catch continued to rise to an all-time high around 1990, and then dropped as salmon populations fell off up and down the West Coast. It is clear that Canadian and American troll catches of chinook salmon rose in parallel with declines in the Columbia River harvest.40

Because the salmon swim through so many jurisdictions, it is extraordinarily difficult to figure out the total impact of harvest on salmon. Reviewing the data, the National Research Council concluded that “data limitations have had a serious influence on our ability to assess and manage salmon appropriately”.41

Decades ago, many observers recognized that harvesting salmon in the ocean made no sense. This was (and is) true for several reasons. Most fundamentally, it is harder to catch the salmon. Unlike a pool below a waterfall (or dam) where salmon are concentrated, out in the ocean salmon are few and far between. More investment in capital is required to catch them—a boat capable of going out on the open ocean. And much time and energy is expended searching for the salmon. Fleets of gas or diesel powered boats must comb the oceans at enormous expense. No one has ever attempted to analyze the environmental impacts of all these fishing efforts.

A more subtle problem with the ocean harvest is that many of the fish that are caught are immature. Ocean harvest is like a farmer harvesting carrots in mid-summer, when they are not fully grown. If the farmer would wait until fall, he or she would get more crops (and value) per acre. And if the fishermen would wait until the salmon were mature and returning to the river, our enormous investment in hatcheries would give a better return. The only estimate I have ever seen of losses from this factor, made in 1979, is that the total poundage of salmon landed would be more than 50% higher if the fishermen waited until salmon returned to the river.42 When I looked at the question myself, by dividing pounds of catch per fish landed for ocean and in-river fisheries, the result looked like this:

Figure 2: Pounds per fish: Inriver, Washington Non-Tribal Troll, and Tribal Troll43
The top line shows the largest, in-river fish; the middle line, the middle-sized fish caught by commercial fishermen trolling off the coast of Washington; and the bottom line, the smallest fish caught in the tribal fishery off the coast of Washington. The tribal ocean fisheries are the most inefficient, essentially wasting half the value of chinook salmon by catching them too soon.

Not every salmon caught in the river will be at the peak of its value. The farther salmon go upriver, the more energy they expend, and the fewer calories are left in their bodies for human consumption. A salmon caught at the mouth of the Columbia River has the maximum caloric value; a salmon caught near The Dalles about 88% of that value; and a salmon caught in the middle Snake River perhaps only 50% or less.44 In some Canadian rivers, the salmon at the mouths of the rivers are actually too oily to be marketable; on the Columbia the upriver fish with less oil were better for drying as a winter food reserve.

Harvest in the ocean is inherently a "mixed-stock" fishery. Runs of salmon from every river and stream up and down the West Coast and Alaska mix together in one large pool of salmon. There is no practical way to regulate harvest of weak stocks; one can only attempt to regulate the total take of salmon in the pool. This is perhaps the worst vice of ocean harvest, and has long been recognized as a principal cause in the decline of upriver salmon runs in the Columbia River Basin.

Back in 1986, the Northwest Power Planning Council staff warned that in a “mixed-stock fishery, upriver and wild runs already weakened by habitat and passage losses, are fished at the same rate as lower river runs (heavily hatchery-supplemented).”45 They prepared a chart showing the ratio of ocean harvest to remaining in-river runs for various stocks of salmon in the Columbia River Basin. Total ocean harvest of lower river fall hatchery chinook was 1.4 times the in-river run. Total ocean harvest of upper river fall natural chinook was 3.4 times the in-river run.46 Upper river and wild stocks simply could not maintain the high harvest rates prevailing in the late 1980s, which set the stage for endangered species listings of upriver stocks.

37 NRC, Upstream 217 (Prepub. ed.); C. Smith, Salmon Fishers of the Columbia 85.

38 B. Brown, Mountain in the Clouds: A Search for the Wild Salmon 51 (Simon & Schuster 1982).

39 B. Brown, Mountain in the Clouds 52.

40 See, e.g., NRC, Upstream 229 (Prepub. ed.) (Figure 10-6a showing troll-fishery catch of chinook from 1905 to 1990).

41 NRC, Upstream 222 (Prepub. ed.).

42 See C. Smith, Salmon Fishers of the Columbia 90.

43 Adapted from Historical Ocean Fishery Data for Washington, Oregon and California (PFMC Sept. 1993).

44 R. White, The Organic Machine 17

45 “Compilation of Salmon and Steelhead Losses in the Columbia River Basin”, Appendix D of the 1987 Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program, at 5 (NWPPC Mar. 1986).

46 Id. at 16.

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