Jack McNeel
Grand Coulee Dam, the so-called granddaddy of all impediments to fish migration, as seen from the hillside above the reservoir.

First Nations Save First Foods: Northwest Tribes Seek to Restore Historic Fish Runs

Jack McNeel

Salmon and other migratory fish attempting to return to their spawning grounds in the Pacific Northwest face no fewer than 400 man-made barriers in the Columbia River Basin, the earliest dating back to 1885—and there may be as many as 100 more constructed illegally on private property, tribal fish biologists estimate.

The impediments to fish migration posed by such monolithic barriers as the 551-foot-high Grand Coulee Dam are well documented, but anadromous fish face a myriad of other obstacles as well. In the 129 years since that first dam was built in Spokane, Washington, fish passage has been restricted, if not totally eliminated, in many areas, tribal experts said at a recent workshop addressing the issues. And it’s not just the Columbia River.

“The tributaries and main stem Snake River habitat are probably in worse shape than on the Columbia,” said Dave Johnson, program manager for the Nez Perce Department of Fisheries. “The main stem is a mess. All the Snake River salmon and steelhead populations are listed under the endangered species act or have been extirpated. Idaho Power Company is trying to relicense those facilities right now, and there are things they need to fix as part of that, things that are caused only by those dams being there such as the mercury issue, such as temperature problems.”

Biologists with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC) have documented most of these obstructions on a massive map of the basin. They gathered at a workshop in mid-March to review their individual projects ahead of the CRITFC’s Future of Our Salmon conference to be held in Oregon on April 23 and 24. The goal is to restore historic fishing runs. Eliminating such obstructions is essential not only from a food-security standpoint, the experts said, but also culturally and spiritually—though all are different facets of the same thing.

“The deal we made with the Creator is that if we take care of our first foods, the first foods will take care of us,” said Paul Lumley, executive director of the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), which held the workshop. “Salmon are the first of the first foods.”


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