“We regulate our fisheries. But we concentrate them on the best races and one by one these shrink or vanish and we do not even follow their fate because we have not learned to recognize their independent component groups or to separate them one from the other. We continue our unequal demands, knowing only that our total catches diminish, as one by one small populations disappear unnoticed from the greater mixtures from which we fish.” W. F. Thompson (1965).1

The decline of Columbia River salmon is mostly another tragedy of the commons; a story of overfishing. Fishery biologists have been warning about the problem for a long time, as populations of salmon disappeared one by one from the Pacific Northwest, in rivers with and without dams. Even after the listing of some Northwest salmon as endangered, we “continue our unequal demands” on them, as endangered Northwest salmon remain subject to commercial harvest and human consumption.

The Rise of Salmon Harvest in the Columbia Basin

The great abundance of salmon in the Columbia River Basin helped shape the development of tribal civilizations throughout the Northwest. When Lewis and Clark toured the Pacific Northwest in 1805-06, they found Native Americans fishing at over 100 sites in the lower Snake and Columbia, and observed them packing 90-100 pound bales of pulverized, dried salmon for commerce with distant tribes.2 How many salmon were caught? No one will ever really know for sure.

Research continues, however, and there have been recent (but unpublished) reports of archaeological evidence of tribal famines from inadequate salmon runs. In the Native American myths, “there is a recurring motif of a time when sisters imprisoned the salmon—sometimes within a lake or pond, sometimes behind a dam—and how they are freed by Coyote, the lecherous and often foolish culture hero.”3 Perhaps these myths all arise from the collapse of Table Mountain.

We do know that the tribes caught a lot of salmon. They were highly skilled, using spears, dipnets, seines and sometimes even gillnets. Places where the salmon were particularly easy to catch—at the bottom of waterfalls or on spawning grounds—became centers for tribal gatherings. The most famous such location was Celilo Falls, near The Dalles, Oregon, now submerged by the waters impounded behind The Dalles Dam. Before the Dam was built, Celilo Falls was only submerged during spring floods, which halted fishing at the site.4

Some historical accounts have claimed that during the heavy fishing season at Celilo Falls, the population swelled from 100 to 3,000.5 A fishwheel operator in The Dalles, however, reported that "[p]rior to about 1936, Celilo Falls had an Indian population in the fishing season of some 30 or 40 families that lived there permanently or came from the reservations to fish".6 Most of the fishing spots at the Falls were inaccessible because of swift waters, but once the fishwheel company (which also purchased salmon caught by the tribes) began to string overhead cables for access, "[i]n less than ten years Celilo had developed from a few Indian fishermen to an estimated 1,000 Indians coming to fish there during the fall season".7 Higher salmon prices at the onset of World War II helped draw Indians from the reservations.8

In the 1940s, scientists estimated the peak population of Native Americans in the Columbia River Basin at 50,000, and suggested that if they each consumed a pound of salmon a day, the annual catch was 18 million pounds.9 These were crude estimates and did not take account of the differences in consumption among the tribes. The tribes centered around Celilo Falls may have derived between 30 and 40 percent of their total caloric intake from salmon; the upriver tribes probably obtained 5 percent or less.10

These facts are now of political significance. Anti-dam writers, holding the salmon more important to the tribes, speculate that archeological evidence showing that early Snake River inhabitants ate more meat than fish could be in error because “fish bones don’t preserve well”.11 This seems unlikely, since hundreds of thousands of salmon vertebrae have been recovered at 10,000-year-old sites.12

As a result of the effects of white settlement, particularly smallpox, the tribal population fell drastically, perhaps by a factor of 6 between 1800 and 1850.13 By the time Governor Stevens signed several treaties with the tribes in 1855, total tribal harvest may have fallen accordingly, to 3 million pounds.

Early writers theorized that the collapse of tribal populations allowed salmon populations to increase and paved the way for record salmon runs in the late 1800s.14 More modern writers have questioned whether the tribes’ fishing effort was ever sufficient to depress salmon populations.15

While we do not know the effects of tribal fishing on salmon, many believe that early Paleo-Indian populations showed no restraint in hunting the wooly mammoth to extinction.16 Had Northwest tribal civilizations developed into Mayan proportions, including widespread slavery,17 they might well have produced the same destruction of salmon runs that the white settlers ultimately wrought. One biologist has estimated that “nearly 75 percent of the large mammal and bird genera of the late ice age era were gone from North America by the time Europeans arrived, with some of these extinctions hastened along by Indians in the sort of hyperspeed fashion now presumed an exclusive feature of industrial society”.18

David Duncan’s wonderful book The River Why recounts a legend of the Wolf Clan of the Nass River People intended to warn tribal members not to waste the salmon resource.19 The great Harvard anthropologist Franz Boas came to the Pacific Northwest in the late 1800s and reported on all the taboos that the trickster-god Coyote provided for his people. In the case of chinook salmon, he told the people: “When you have killed many salmon, you must never carry them outside the house. You must roast and eat them at the same place. When part is left you must stay at the same place.”20

These sorts of rules may be calculated to limit overfishing, and one wonders what Coyote would say about the tribes’ modern commercial harvest practices. Perhaps he would tell them that their violation of the taboos has contributed to salmon declines. It seems doubtful that Coyote would approve of stringing up seven gillnets across a 100-foot creek to completely exterminate a wild steelhead run—a practice reported in 1997.21

It would not be surprising if the unwritten history of all tribes includes battles between environmentalists and those who would exploit natural resources thoughtlessly, like the contrast in The River Why between Thomas Bigeater, the Warm Springs elder, and the young drunken Indians spearing salmon. The holy men of the tribes may have been the environmentalists and custodians of the tribal lore about which we now learn. Thus we now think of the tribes as environmentalists and ignore their frequent slash and burn approach to natural resource management.

We do know, however, that the tribes never adopted high technology fishing methods. Most of the salmon were caught one-by-one, with dip nets and spears. The white settlers quickly invented (or copied from the tribes) mass production techniques. Gillnets, fish wheels, and fish traps littered the river, in a parallel to an orgy of timber harvesting going on at the same time. By the late 1800s, observers warned about the decline in salmon numbers, and urged limits on fishing seasons.

At that time, chinook salmon ran continuously in the Columbia River beginning in February, increasing throughout the summer and gradually decreasing into the fall. They were divided into three races: spring chinook salmon (harvested beginning in February until May), summer (harvested in June, July and August), and fall chinook (harvested after August). Under current management plans, all chinook passing Bonneville Dam from March through May are counted as upriver “spring” chinook. Chinook passing in June and July are summer chinook. Fall chinook can be distinguished visually and generally pass Bonneville in late July through early October.22

The most abundant salmon, the summer run, were destroyed first. When settlers first arrived, the "June hogs" were recognized to be the best salmon for eating. This, coupled with the fact that the weather made it easier to fish in the summer, meant that the harvesters focused on summer chinook first. Writer Joseph Cone notes that as early as the 1880s, the June hogs “established the reputation of Columbia salmon throughout the United States”.23

Today the summer run of chinook salmon in the Columbia River is the smallest of the three runs. And even though large-scale fishing for summer chinook has been outlawed for decades, the summer run has never regained its former size. After the summer chinook were nearly destroyed, the spring and fall races became an important component in commercial salmon harvests.24 The spring run, however, was regarded as the high quality run, and many canneries only operated in the fall if the spring runs were poor.25

The gillnetters became the winners in the battle for control of the salmon resource. The story of how they achieved this is fully told in a number of good books, including Dr. Courtland Smith’s Salmon Fishers of the Columbia. It was a triumph of trade unionism akin to that prevailing around the country, as the gillnetters formed a union and attacked the owners of fish traps, fish wheels, pound nets, and other harvesters as “moneyed individuals” who “annihilated” salmon and “could take their gold and go elsewhere”.26 Violent controversy and even murder fueled the rise of the gillnetters.

Although concentrated in the lower river, overfishing reached to the farthest hinterlands of the Pacific Northwest. Even in remote Idaho, in streams that provide pristine salmon habitat, large numbers of fishermen, including the tribes, overfished the salmon.

Most Idahoans now lament the fact that the historic Salmon River no longer contains great runs of salmon for which it was named. But the salmon in the Salmon River were largely destroyed decades ago. A 1941 survey of the Salmon river reported that “spearing salmon on the spawning beds at the headwaters formerly resulted in great economic waste and was one of the principal causes of salmon depletion in this region”.27

Marsh Creek, a tributary of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, used to support a substantial run of salmon. But a 1950 survey of the Columbia River Basin reported that "in the last 20 years, particularly in the decade preceding 1940, the run had been almost exterminated by the former unrestricted practice of spearing salmon on the spawning beds".28 The surveyors counted only five redds in the Creek.29

One of the goals of the secret “Biological Requirements Work Group” arising from the Idaho Fish and Game case (discussed in Chapter 9 below) was to establish very aggressive recovery goals for Snake River tributaries, including Marsh Creek. Perhaps the authors of those goals had no idea that the runs were the remnants of a race exterminated by overfishing, and no idea whether recovery is possible at all in such circumstances—they chose instead to blame the dams for the decline in runs.30

There does not seem to be any documentation as to who was doing the spearfishing on the spawning grounds up in Idaho. Circumstantial evidence suggests that it was members of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe, the same Tribe that led the charge for Endangered Species Act protection for Idaho salmon by petitioning for the listing of Snake River sockeye salmon.

No one really knows what sort of subtle aftershocks influence the salmon populations in the wake of the periods of great overfishing. One government biologist who worked for 30 years in the field concluded:

"History tells us 80 percent to 90 percent of the run was caught or canned or otherwise gone before Bonneville Dam was constructed. So most of the fish, fishermen, and their profits were long gone before I was born. But the resulting biological and ecological lesions from population decimation would continue, with long-term, pernicious consequences, neither easily nor quickly undone."31


Quoted in ISG, Return to the River 76.

2 A. Netboy, Salmon of the Pacific Northwest: Fish vs. Dams 10 (1958).

3 R. White, The Organic Machine 18-19.

4 F. Seufert, Wheels of Fortune at 38.

5 A. Netboy, Salmon of the Pacific Northwest: Fish vs. Dams 13

6 F. Seufert, Wheels of Fortune at 40.

7 Id.

8 Id. at 59 (". . . the profits were good, and the Indians, like the white men, recognized a good thing when they saw it").

9 J. Craig & R. Hacker, The history and development of the fisheries of the Columbia River. U.S. Bureau of Fisheries Bulletin 49(32):133-215.

10 R. White, The Organic Machine 18; but cf. B. Harden, A River Lost 106 (“Before the [Grand Coulee] dam, each member of the Colville tribe ate, on average, about one and a quarter pounds of salmon a day, according to Verne Ray, an anthropologist who lived among the Colvilles in the 1920s”).

11 K. Petersen, River of Life, Channel of Death 48.

12 See “Compilation of Information on Salmon and Steelhead Losses in the Columbia River Basin”, Appendix D of the 1987 Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program, at 31.

13 D. Chapman, Salmon and Steelhead Abundance, at 669. Other estimates put the loss at two-thirds between 1800 and 1875. See R. White, The Organic Machine 27 (describing outbreaks of smallpox and malaria). Environmentalist writers go so far as to sugges that “perhaps 90% of the Indians of the region had died from outbreaks of malaria”, but do not cite any sources for this information. J. Cone, A Common Fate 105; see also B. Harden, A River Lost 61.

14 E.g, Craig, J. A. and R. L. Hacker, “The history and development of the fisheries of the Columbia River, U.S. Bureau of Fisheries Bulletin 49(32):133-215 (1940); Hewes, G. W., “Aboriginal use of fishery resources in northwestern North America”, Doctorial dissertation. University of California, Berkeley (1947).

15 D. W. Chapman, “Salmon and Steelhead Abundance in the Columbia River in the Nineteenth Century”, Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 115:662-70, at 669 (1986); see also B. Harden, A River Lost 63 (citing no source for the claim).

16 G. Easterbrook, A Moment on the Earth 316, cf. id.. at 87-88

17 Mr. White tells us that on the lower Columbia, a flattened head denoted freedom, a round head slavery. The Organic Machine at 24.

18 Edward Wilson, in The Diversity of Life, cited in G. Easterbrook, A Moment on the Earth 97.

19 D. Duncan, The River Why 138 (Bantam 1983).

20 F. Boas, Chinook Texts, Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin No. 20 (1894), quoted in C. Smith, Salmon Fishers of the Columbia 13.

21 Memo, L. Bleakney to File, Aug. 28, 1997 (recording conversation with Milton Fischer concerning Tribal harvest on Herman Creek above Bonneville Dam).

22 PNGC v. Brown, 822 F. Supp. at 1483 n.1.

23 J. Cone, A Common Fate 8.

24 Van Hyning, J. “Stock-recruitment relationships for Columbia River chinook salmon”. Doctoral dissertation. Oregon State University, Corvallis (1968).

25 C. Smith, Salmon Fishers of the Columbia 45.

26 R. White, The Organic Machine 45.

27 Reported in “Compilation of Information on Salmon and Steelhead Losses in the Columbia River Basin”, Appendix D of the 1987 Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program, at D-81 (NWPPC Mar. 1986). This Appendix goes creek by creek through the salmon-bearing tributaries of the Columbia River and documents enormous destruction of salmon runs entirely unrelated to dams.

28 F. Bryant & Z. Parkhurst, Survey of the Columbia River and its Tributaries 22 (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Spec. Sci. Rep. Fish. 1950).

29 Id.

30 See Progress Report of the Biological Requirements Work Group  I(D), at 3-4 (Oct. 13, 1994). The list of literature cited in this report evidences no review of the historical circumstances of the "index streams" NMFS identifies as the standard by which salmon recovery should be measured.

31 G. Bouck, "Thirty years taught that money won't save salmon", The Oregonian, October 20, 1995, at D7.

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