It’s one of the largest runs since dam construction blocked fishes’ river passage. The run is forecast at 1.5 million adult and young adult salmon by year’s end, although fish managers say the final number may turn out to be lower.
“It’s a huge run of fish. It’s been a really good fishing season,” said Rex Zack, a tribal fisherman from the Yakama Nation who has fished the Columbia for 25 years and was hauling in fish near the Bonneville Dam on Friday.
Zack, who runs three boats with the help of his wife, nieces and nephews, said he’s averaging two to three totes of salmon per boat a day — which translates to several thousand pounds of fish. His family keeps some of the salmon to feed themselves and sells the rest.
“It’s really good to see fish coming back,” Zack said.
Millions of salmon once returned to the Columbia. For millennia, the fish were central to Native American culture, sustenance and trade, but the runs were decimated by overfishing, logging, mining, agriculture and hydroelectric dams, which cut off passage to upriver spawning areas in native streams.
Fish hatcheries have been used to help rebuild dwindling fish populations, with mixed results, and millions of dollars have been spent on habitat and on dam passage improvements such as fish ladders. Thirteen species of salmon and steelhead are now listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act in the Columbia River basin.
Some of the fish populations — notably the fall chinook salmon — have increased in recent years. Last year’s record run consisted of nearly 1.2 million adult and young adult chinook.
By comparison, in 1938, a little over 200,000 fall chinook came back to the river. Historically, the runs have seen spikes in numbers every 10 to 15 years.
So far this year, more than 460,000 adult chinook have passed over the Bonneville Dam’s four fish ladders, and the run is a little more than halfway done. About 49,000 jack chinook — the young adult fish — also have made it back over the dam. Bonneville is the first dam salmon cross in their migration upriver.