Ninety percent of the Spring Chinook returning to the Columbia River used to be born out of the Upper Willamette. Over the course of the past century wild salmon populations across the Willamette River basin have experienced dramatic declines in abundance and range. Wild Spring Chinook, which used to be so important for fisheries and cultural identity, are struggling to persist.
A Natural Origin Spring Chinook above Detroit Reservoir. Photo: Conrad Gowell
In healthy watersheds across the northern Pacific, wild fish runs are sustained by a minimum number of fish that successfully complete their lifecycle by spawning with one another under natural conditions. This is the salmon story we are all familiar with, but this is not the case in the Upper Willamette. There, adult spring chinook are predominantly spawned artificially in hatcheries with hundreds of thousands of their offspring released through pipes back into the river systems. When those hatchery salmon return, instead of contributing to the vitality of their species and ecological health of the watershed, they serve two purposes: (1) to be caught in a fishery (2) to be artificially spawned in fish hatcheries so the cycle can play out again. Wild salmon in Oregon, under hatchery influence for over 100 years, have seen population collapses across the Willamette with extirpations in numerous subbasins. And now, even though wild fish are on the brink of extinction, the abundance of hatchery broodstock is prioritized over the health and recovery of wild fish.
Hatchery Spring Chinook rearing at Marion Forks Fish Hatchery. Photo: Conrad Gowell
Hatcheries are but one of many factors that contributed to the loss of a once thriving wild spring chinook population in the Willamette Basin. In the mid 1900’s, USACE failed to provide fish passage in the construction of several dams along the east side of the Willamette valley, thus blocking access to much of the highest quality habitat in the most historically productive systems. This further diminished a wild salmon population already stressed by the impacts of hatchery competition, over harvest, and habitat destruction. The North Santiam, once home to an estimated 23% of the upper Willamette Spring Chinook run, lost an estimated 70% of its anadromous fish habitat with the Big Cliff and Detroit dams. In addition, the unseasonable water temps and unnatural flow patterns below the dams have degraded fish habitat, diminishing habitat potential for both spawning and rearing of salmon. At Big Cliff and Detroit dams, operational temperature controls are beginning to be addressed, but measures to secure safe downstream fish passage will not be implemented until the mid 2020s. For nearly two decades, though efforts to re-establish spring chinook above Detroit dam through an adult outplanting ‘truck and haul’ program have achieved some success, these runs are entirely dependent on human intervention, lack a self-sustaining future, and are comprised purely of hatchery stock fish.
There are no shortage of issues impeding successful recovery of wild salmon in the PNW: climate change; competition and predation from hatchery fish and invasive species; pollution; over-harvest and poaching; and loss of habitat have all taken their toll, but robust genetics are the key to overcoming these adversities. The more artificial the run, the more fragile the species becomes. With the loss of genetic integrity, fish populations are more prone to disease and less able to adapt to the dynamic habitat qualities of their natal streams. These threatened populations will not recover without these fish reproducing on their own. In the long term, we are increasing the risk of extinction to these fish as they continually adapt to hatchery conditions, rather than stream conditions. Wild fish are the quickest and most economical way to a healthy watershed and a sustainable fishery. Action is needed to ensure that priority goes to getting wild fish back on their spawning grounds, allowing them the opportunity for recovery, and giving them the respect they deserve.
Miles of prime spawning habitat lies inaccessible to Wild Spring Chinook in the upper North Santiam Basin. Photo: Conrad Gowell