This year regional agencies recorded one of the smallest counts of spring Chinook salmon in a generation in the Snake and Columbia river basin
By Sarah Trent
Aug. 21, 2021
RIGGINS, Idaho—Beneath the vacancy sign at the Salmon River Motel, a black and white placard reads “Salmon Lives Matter, Give a Dam.” For years the motel has been a profitable business in this canyon town of 400 three hours north of Boise, with a mile-long Main Street that swells each summer with visiting sport fishermen.
Now the motel and other businesses here are at risk, as the fish that drive the local economy shrink in both number and size.
This year, regional fish and wildlife agencies recorded one of the smallest counts of adult spring Chinook salmon in a generation in the Snake and Columbia river basin. Last year was worse. A wide body of research connects their decline to rising temperatures and climate change, which have compounded the damage done to fish populations by hydroelectric dams.
The impact of this decline ripples along this species’ entire migratory route, from the tourist economies and tribal communities of the inland Northwest to the $2 billion commercial fishing industry in ocean waters as far as Alaska, where state fisheries report total harvest weight has dropped by half since the 1960s.
Across the inland Pacific Northwest, dwindling salmon runs have emptied motel rooms, tackle shops and restaurants. Business in Riggins this summer beat expectations as pandemic fears eased, but the continuing decline of the sought-after Chinook—the largest of all Pacific salmon—threatens to devastate economies and tribes throughout the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.
If salmon continue to decline, “it will hurt this town,” said Salmon River Motel owner Jerry Walker, whose family of loggers suffered when the town’s sawmill burned down in 1982. Without the fish that helped Riggins rebuild its economy, he said, “there’s nothing else here.”
Outdoor-resource tourism economies like Riggins “are really fragile things,” said Aaron Lieberman, executive director of the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association. The decline of one resource can cause a cascading effect, he said. “When you don’t have fish runs, you don’t have people coming, the entire economy is crippled.”
Reports by the Idaho Department of Fish & Game show that salmon in the connected Columbia and Snake river basins in Idaho, Washington and Oregon first plummeted after the midcentury construction of eight hydroelectric dams that blocked or slowed migration. Fish must swim hundreds of miles downstream as finger-sized juveniles heading to sea, then return upstream again several years later to spawn.
State, federal and tribal governments developed a national hatchery system to mitigate these losses by releasing tens of millions of juvenile fish each year. By the early 2000s, it seemed those efforts were working: State data showed returning adults peaked around 2001. Riggins locals recall streets lined with RVs and great fishing for weeks on end. A state-commissioned economic analysis showed salmon fishing alone that year brought $10 million to Riggins, accounting for a quarter of the town’s annual revenue.
Since then, research and fisheries data show spring Chinook runs are getting smaller and individual fish weigh less, too. Lower snowpack, warmer nights, and heat waves like those that have blasted this region all summer have caused lower flows and warmer conditions inhospitable to these cold-water fish.
This spring, researchers at the Nez Perce Tribe Department of Fisheries Resources Management said 42% of wild Chinook populations in the Snake River Basin had reached “quasi-extinction levels” and predicted 77% of populations would fall to that level by 2025.
Hatcheries throughout the region still collect enough of their own returning fish to spawn and meet their production mandate, said Ralph Steiner, who manages the Rapid River National Hatchery near Riggins, but there are fewer left in the river for fishing. Because of rising water temperatures and earlier migrations associated with climate change, he said, their operations also face new challenges and increasing costs to replenish the fish vital to commercial, recreational and tribal fisheries.
This May, facing fewer salmon and tighter state restrictions, Riggins outfitter and guide Roy Akins canceled half his salmon bookings, returning a total of $15,000 to 60 fishermen he said were frustrated and disappointed. “Nobody wants to hear that the day they’ve been looking forward to is going to be taken away from them,” Mr. Akins said.
As fishermen rethought travel plans, the Salmon River Motel saw normally booked-solid rooms sit empty, said Sharon Walker, referencing records from before she and her husband bought the property in August. John Belton, owner of Seven Devils Steak House at the center of town, said slow spring salmon years can cut their May and June income in half.
Debbie Swift, who works at liquor and tackle store Hook Line & Sinker, said that tackle sales have decreased over the years, and that slow seasons and cancellations complicate inventory decisions.
The salmon decline also leaves recreational fishermen and tribal communities, which by law split the available harvest, “fighting over scraps,” Mr. Akins said.
Tribal communities say it isn’t just their economic health, but their very existence that is at stake. For these traditionally subsistence communities, salmon are a sacred source of food and connection with the Earth, and are at the root of tribes’ cultures, languages and songs, said Aja DeCoteau, interim director of the Intertribal Fish Commission coordinating management efforts of four tribes in the Columbia Basin.
Ms. DeCoteau, a Yakama Tribe member, said lately there are years when there aren’t enough fish to sell, let alone fill her community’s freezers for the year. “This is just the beginning,” she said. “We have to adapt.”
Her organization has contributed research, a salmon recovery plan, and invested federal grants totaling $27 million toward watershed restoration. Mr. Akins said that without the tribes’ efforts, he believes salmon here would already be extinct.
This year, Mr. Akins, Nez Perce leaders and conservation groups backed a proposal by Rep. Mike Simpson (R., Idaho) calling for redeveloping energy infrastructure and breaching the Snake River dams, citing the increasing threat of climate change and the enormous cost of salmon extinction to his state.
Mr. Akins said he was hopeful, but less so than as a young man advocating for these precious fish. Now, he said, he and his wife, Karen Akins, want to diversify their income. They would like to buy a self-storage facility, Ms. Akins said: It is less risky than fishing.