Return of the Salmon

Return of the Salmon

After 80 years of injustice, the time has finally come to bring salmon back to the Canadian Columbia.

Since time immemorial, the men, women, and children of the Syilx, Secwepemc, Sinixt, and Ktunaxa First Nations gathered along the banks of the mighty Columbia River every year. Baskets and nets in hand, they all came for one purpose- to fish for salmon. That is until 1942, when the Grand Coulee dam was completed, and the largest run of salmon in the pacific ocean hit a wall; a wall that not only killed a fishery, but a way of life.

The 9 million pounds of concrete that is the Grand Coulee dam may also represent the worlds largest gravestone; a sad reminder of what was lost, both ecologically and culturally. Ecologically, four species of anadromous salmonids were lost to the landscape- sockeye, chinook, and Coho salmon, along with steelhead trout. Culturally, the indigenous peoples lost a sacred resource that was central to their way of life, and also their primary source of food. The losses can’t even begin to be quantified. However, after 80 long years, it seems as though we may finally be on the cusp of returning the salmon to the Canadian Columbia, and bring justice to the land and its inhabitants.

The Mighty Columbia’s Meager Salmon Runs

The Columbia River is the largest river that drains into the pacific in all of North America. The historic salmon run was estimated to be between 10-16 million each year, with roughly 4 million of those historically running above Grand Coulee dam. In 2018, the total run was down to just 660,000 fish, and the 10-year average is around 2 million, and many of those are hatchery-raised fish. Climate models are suggesting the suitable spawning habitat in the lower reaches of the river may be severely impacted by climate change, making the long-term viability of the Columbia River salmon run uncertain at best if the fish continue to be blocked off from the coldest, best spawning streams in the basin- the ones in Canada above the Grand Coulee dam.

Therefore, it seems more important than ever to consider a largescale project to return salmon to their historical range in Canada. This, along with continued pressure from First Nations on both sides on the border has increased the pressure on both governments to make a plan to bring salmon back to the Upper Columbia.

Columbia River watershed and it’s major dams. Photo: Province of British Columbia

Bringing Salmon Home

It is beginning to sound as though it should be ‘when’ not ‘if’ salmon get returned. The plan is already in motion; albeit, in its preliminary stages. Extensive research is currently being undertaken by various stakeholders. Between 2015 and 2019, chinook and sockeye salmon have been pit-tagged and transported above the dams into Lake Roosevelt, to track their movements; many of these fish were found to continue their migration northwards, suggesting the salmon runs would return to Canada if they were capable. Salmon have been successfully re-introduced to the Okanagan river for the first time in nearly 80 years, providing a blueprint of what is possible. First Nations on both sides of the border have been performing salmon ceremonies, and releasing both juvenile and adult salmon into various river systems to put pressure on the government. In many of these cases, the salmon survived the fall and appeared to spawn successfully. So it would seem as though there is finally something to be optimistic about. This dream may actually become a reality within my life, a thought that excites me beyond belief.

In addition to the Grand Coulee Dam, there are three dams at the Chief Joseph facility in Washington that would also require fish passage. Achieving fish passage at these facilities could be achieved using a trap-and-haul method at first, while more permanent technologies are investigated for the future. Allowing juveniles to migrate back to the ocean has always been the more challenging aspect of fish migration over dams, however, in recent years viable options have emerged and progressed markedly. A similar project at the Baker dam in Washington has seen sockeye salmon runs increase from just 99 fish in 1985 to 48,000 in 2012, and in 2014 over a million juveniles successfully migrated downstream past the dam on their way to the ocean. Success stories like these provide the proof that this goal is achievable, so long as there is the political will. Achieving passage at these facilities in the US is already in the works, and once completed, would mean salmon once again swimming in the streams of the west Kootenays.

But what will they find once they get here? Well, for the most part, more dams.

Traditionally, salmon migrated as far upstream as Columbia Lake, near Canal Flats. On the Kootenay River, they utilized 50 KM of the lower river before being blocked at Bonnington falls, near Nelson, BC. On the Pend O’Reille, salmon migrated upstream to Metaline Falls. These traditional spawning areas are all currently blocked by dams. Feasibility projects and supporting research are currently underway for Hugh Keenleyside dam on the Columbia River, Brilliant dam on the Kootenay River, and the Waneta Dam and 7-mile dams on the Pend O’Reille River. Creating passage at these facilities could return salmon to popular west Kootenay streams, including the Slocan and Salmo Rivers.

While both the Slocan and Salmo Rivers are relatively good fisheries, one gets the sense when fishing them that something is missing. Well that is indeed the truth. The Salmo river was known to get fall, spring and summer chinook, along with a healthy run of steelhead trout. It was also known as a world class trout stream, whereas now it is a second thought for most anglers. The Slocan got spring and summer chinook, along with sockeye. This massive influx of nutrients that came with the salmon each year has been missing from these streams for 80 years, and has greatly impacted their productivity and their ability to support larger fish.

Fish passage would need to be installed on the 7-mile dam on the Pend O’Reille River to return Salmon access to the Salmo River.

Reconciliation and Justice

Bringing salmon back to the Canadian Columbia is a matter of reconciliation with First Nations who occupied this territory before colonization. When the Grand Coulee dam was constructed, the Canadian government was informed by the US, and stated they had no objections. There was no meaningful consultation with any of the four First Nations who utilized the Columbia river salmon runs. Twenty years later, the Columbia River Treaty dams flooded much of the west Kootenay valley bottoms, displacing thousands of indigenous peoples; again, this was done without consultation and prior informed consent. It is time for both the federal and provincial governments to recognize the role they played in the destruction of First Nations culture in the area, and make the return of salmon to the region a priority as an act of reconciliation.

The most startling example of this cultural destruction relates to to Sinixt First Nation (the lakes people). The Sinixt traditionally occupied the arrow lakes region along the Columbia, from Kettle Falls in Washington all the way north to the big bend at the northern end of the Columbia. They managed prominent fisheries at Bonnington falls on the Kootenay River and had many permanent settlements throughout the west Kootenays. Before the construction of the Grand Coulee dam, several other hydroelectric dams had been constructed along on the Kootenay river without consent. Much of their traditional territory had been flooded by dams, and many of their permanent settlements destroyed. As their traditional territory was being destroyed in Canada, many members started to drift south into the United States, where the fisheries and landscapes were still intact. This meant a drastically reduced presence in Canada. This reduced presence allowed to Canadian government to conveniently declare them extinct in Canada, absolving the crown of any duty owed to them. This was not true. The Sinixt people still have a presence in Canada and never stopped. This represents a large injustice by the Canadian government and a concerning incidence of cultural destruction, one that must be addressed. Salmon re-introduction is the natural first step in a process of reconciliation that will take many generations.

Bonnington Falls used to be an important fishing area for the Sinixt First Nation- it was also the end of the road for salmon migrating up the Kootenay River.

A future with Salmon benefits us all

I truly believe that returning Salmon to the Upper Columbia is one of the most important initiatives of our time. For far too long, the landscape of the west Kootenays has been missing a vital component that supported so many other species, and the link that connected people with the land. Salmon provide ecosystem benefits by way of nutrient cycling, economic benefits in the form of commercial fisheries and angling opportunities, and cultural benefits through re-connecting indigenous cultures with their most sacred resource. This initiative provides an opportunity to heal- both the land, and the cultures that relied on them for so long. And for the first time in a long time, there is hope. Hope that I may one day stand in the waters of the Slocan River and see a grizzly bear feeding on the carcass of a sockeye, or swing an intruder through the beautiful waters of the Salmo and hook into a steelhead. Hope that one day, there will be justice.

Mark holding a Chinook Salmon making its final journey

Interested? Check out the links below to learn more about Salmon re-introduction in the Columbia River.

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