All Along We Knew

Over 50,000 spring chinook are projected to return to the Willamette River this spring and some will eclipse the 20-pound mark.
Rose City Springers
April 1, 2022
Trolling is a lot more involved that simply plunking any old rod into the rod holder. Selecting the proper rod is the foundation for success with one of the most proven methods for chasing salmon.
Length, Power, Action!
August 1, 2022
Show all
All Along We Knew

The majority of commercial salmon fishermen in the waters of Southeast Alaska are Washington state residents effectively evading Boldt and the ESA in the interception of southbound fish.


All Along We Knew

Salmon management in the pacific northwest has always been a desperate race to stay ahead of commercial harvest, every step sign-posted with dire warnings of extinction. by Patrick McGann

RED LIGHTS STARTED FLASHING in the first report of the Washington Fish Commission. In 1890 James Crawford, the first state fish commissioner flatly stated “….without the aid of artificial propagation the stock of fish will eventually become exhausted.”

His report, a 34-page document, meticulously conveyed the state’s measure of the ‘health’ of the salmon resource: the number of cases canned, the value of the canned salmon to the cannery, the number of people employed in the canneries (mostly Chinese nationals), how much they were paid, the number of commercial salmon fishermen, the type of gear being used, the value to each of the salmon, speculation of the amount of wasted fish due to lack of refrigeration (horrendous) and other characteristics of commercial harvest.

Obviously, in Crawford’s eyes and in the eyes of commissioners and directors in the decades that follow, the more cases canned, the better the state of the fish. And with no hint of irony whatsoever, the first report, like in many reports to come after Crawford’s tenure, insisted that without this or without that, commercial harvest would eventually exterminate the runs.

Crawford saw problems besides a lack of hatcheries: saw dust, mill dams, dynamite, unattended fish traps and the persistent practice of killing smaller or immature fish and spoilage. But not over harvest. And that is a continuous theme and still is.

Prior to 1930, with some exceptions, the harvest was whatever it was and was limited only by season timing and method of harvest. And they knew from day one that unless this or that or the other, they were going to fish it out.

In 1892, you can read in Commissioner Crawford’s third report a dark realization. “There is no denying the fact that the quinnat or Chinook species of salmon is gradually decreasing in the waters of the Columbia River, and unless some prompt action is taken in the matter by the legislature to give better protection to this fish, the species that has made the Columbia River a world-wide reputation will soon become but a memory.” He used the collapse of the salmon fishery in the Sacramento River as a warning about the Columbia, writing that “indiscriminate and unregulated fishing” was to blame.

“It is an indisputable fact that the number of quinnat [chinook] salmon coming into the Columbia River is annually growing smaller, and the laws upon our statue books are wholly inadequate to their proper protection. The cause will at once become apparent if one will stop to think of the numerous obstacles placed in the path of the parent fish essaying to ascend to its spawning beds among the tributaries of the upper Columbia River. At least twenty-five hundred gill nets, five hundred traps, seventy-five fish wheels and twenty five seines are employed every season in taking salmon, and it is a fortunate fish that reaches the spawning grounds.”

— James Crawford,

Washington Fisheries

Commissioner, Third Report to the Governor, 1892.

Interestingly, Crawford also made the case the concentrated harvest of salmon in rivers was a significant problem particularly in the tributaries of Puget Sound where he saw that restrictions were futile. “I hold that there should be but slight restrictions placed upon the catching of salmon in salt water,” he wrote.

Now remember, this is before any of the Columbia dams were erected or any of Portland’s, Tacoma’s or Seattle’s suburbs were developed, before dewatering, before climate change, before shoreline armoring, before the widespread employment of hatcheries, before the Marine Mammal Protection Act, before interception fisheries in Alaska and British Columbia, before wetlands draining and river channeling, before any significant element of sportfishing for salmon. Before all of that, fisheries managers were beginning to see the end of salmon as a result of commercial over harvest.

Imagine fishing in 1892 in Puget Sound or at Buoy 10, the sheer bounty of it, and imagine a fisheries commissioner saying, “Uh oh. We’re in trouble.”

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, commercial fishing in the northwest was a Wild West situation with no direct control of commercial harvest at all.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, commercial fishing in the northwest was a Wild West situation with no direct control of commercial harvest at all.

Besides the unimaginable numbers of cases of canned salmon produced before the 1930s, the harvest was nearly matched by waste as fish spoiled before they could be delivered or caught after the canneries had reached their capacity. The only measure of the health of a fishery was a tally of the cases of canned fish.

Besides the unimaginable numbers of cases of canned salmon produced before the 1930s, the harvest was nearly matched by waste as fish spoiled before they could be delivered or caught after the canneries had reached their capacity. The only measure of the health of a fishery was a tally of the cases of canned fish.

It would be imaginable if you saw what he saw, the tables of gross cases of canned salmon, mostly chinook, hitting a high of 629,000 cases in 1883, each case carrying 48 cans, just under a pound each. Tails, bones, guts, skin, fins, heads and “small” meats getting dumped back into the water along with undersized fish and mountains of fish that went bad before they got to the canner. And then imagine watching that canning tally decline every year after. This is 130 years ago and still not one dam spanned the Columbia.

Then in 1898, Washington’s second fish commissioner, A.C. Little, surveyed the increasingly lonely upper Columbia tributaries and did a little math:

“What is true of the above rivers is also true of a great many others. In my judgment it will require at least 50,000,000 fry turned out annually on the head-waters of the Columbia to keep up the supply of the May and June runs of Chinook to the amount of the last four or five years.

“Our hatcheries on the lower river with the assistance of the government and our sister state of Oregon, will, if my recommendations in this matter are carried out, have a capacity of about fifty-five million spawn, none too many if they succeed in doing the work expected of them. This work, carried on in and experimental manner and not one tenth the amount done that should be, can only result in raising a prejudice in the minds of many people …. that artificial propagation is a failure. It will, in my judgment, require at least three times the output of the present season …. to keep the supply up to the past season’s catch in years to come, and fully five times as many to bring the run of Chinook up to what it has been in years gone by.”

He’s fairly frantic trying to keep up with the harvest, later bemoaning the fact that as chinook become more scarce, the “more energetic and effective will become the fishermen in catching them; the causes of loss from civilization and an increasing amount of sewage and other polution[sic] cast into the rivers, must necessarily increase, making it more difficult each year to stem the current of destruction.” Again, this is 1898. And by today’s political standards it is hard to see how Commissioner Little survived such an honest assessment.

And then our second fisheries leader had an epiphany of some kind, a gubernatorial woodshed moment perhaps, and he entered the modern world of fisheries political management.

“There has been a remarkable growth of the fisheries industry of the State of Washington during the past two years. This extraordinary increase in the amount of capital invested, labor employed and the value of the output has interested every portion of the state, it being admitted by all that the fisheries are one of our more important industries. No other states has shown such a remarkable increase and no other like amount of territory on earth, with the exception of Alaska, has the promise of such future growth.”

— Little, 10th & 12th

Report to the Governor

Wow. That was some transformation. I wonder what prompted that? Well, his next paragraph spells it out, I’m sure with no intention of mirth.

“The wise legislation enacted by the Legislatures of 1897 and 1899 for the benefit of the industry, together with the extraordinary progress of the same, is increasing the duties of this office entirely out of proportion to the amount of assistance allows the Fish Commissioner. ….

“In the following pages of this report will be found our suggestions for legislation and requests for more assistance.”

In short order he makes the argument that an industry so vital to the state of Washington should not depend on self-funding but should expect to be funded by all the citizens of the state. “We believe that the importance of the industry is now so well known that … this great industry will receive its due proportion of appropriations from the general fund of the state.”

To be fair to Commissioner Little, toward the end of this later report, probably well past the point the governor would stop reading, he returned to gloom and doom about the future prospects of chinook.

It was at this time that the United States Bureau of Fisheries decided they’d better have a look at what was going on out here and a researcher for the Smithsonian, Richard Rathbun, produced a report for the Secretary of Commerce, published in 1890.

Rathbun was impressed with the regulations passed by the states and provinces on methods and licensing and especially the protection of salmon from nets once they enter rivers (the Columbia River was the exception) and the nascent and still casual cooperation between Washington and British Columbia. But, he was appalled at the length of the seasons, the lack of controls over the number of licenses, the lack of treatment of waste at the canneries, and most of all by the complete absence of harvest restrictions or even monitoring of harvest beyond the output of canneries; and most of all by the ignorance of the people, those in government and the fishermen, about the very nature of ownership of the salmon resource.

He compared farming to fishing, noting that ownership of the land imparts stewardship while not in fisheries. In fisheries, where the resource wanders, a natural competition leads inexorably toward over harvest and a thorough disregard of the interests of the public. The only way to prevent that is through restriction by the state on behalf of the public, not the fishermen, who are the ultimate owners of the resource.

“The fisheries must, therefore, be administered upon by the state as a common holding, and the laws relating to them must not only regulate the behavior of those who participate, but also limit and define the extent and manner of their participation. This is entirely in line with the state control of waters for all other purposes, such as navigation. …”

— Richard Rathbun,

U.S. Fish Commission, 1899

The opposite of what Rathbun is talking about is the definition of corruption. There is no other way to describe a public fisheries agency managing a public resource for the enrichment of a few people in the fishing industry at the expense of the whole population. Just because the corruption is not done in secret and done everywhere else commonly, doesn’t mean it is not at its core corrupt. At the very least there should be fair compensation to the public for the resource.

Rathbun mentioned the conundrum, that if the harvest of salmon couldn’t be taxed enough to support that harvest, perhaps the price of salmon was too low as a result of too much supply. 

So go back then to Little’s request that not only should commercial fishermen not be expected to pay for the privilege of converting public resource to private wealth and maintain the cost of management, but that the general public should pay for that ‘privilege’ as well.

In his final summary, Rathbun gave a sobering assessment:

“In the region to which this paper relates there may still be time to give the fisheries the full benefits of a wise protection before any of its branches shall have been appreciably impaired, but action should not be long deferred, as a decrease once begun is hard to check. The urgency of the matter is emphasized by the fact that elsewhere fisheries of the same character as the more important ones here and been among the first to suffer from indiscretion, and it is not to be expected that this region will furnish an exception to the rule.”

This is all so long ago, right? This has all been rectified, right? Well, no. This is the foundation upon which the Pacific salmon are managed today.

In 1930, John N. Cobb, a researcher for the Bureau of Fisheries and founder of the UW’s School of Fisheries (and a pretty interesting guy), prepared a report for the Department of Commerce on the status of Northwest salmon. It gave an account of fin marking of hatchery fish. Cobb lamented that each hatchery had its own method of marking; some removed the adipose fin, some notched the tail, some V-notched the anal fin, some used circular paper punches on the dorsal fin and no record was kept of who was doing what. He noted slapdash hatchery operations and wondered if they weren’t damaging fish runs. If there is damage, he mused, “it would be exceedingly difficult to prove.”

Cobb’s report is also the first mention of the growing pursuit of salmon by the public, getting their own fish instead of buying them in a can in the grocery or at the local fish monger. “The number of sportsmen … is increasing yearly and in time this promises to far excel the sport salmon fishing of the Atlantic coast,” he wrote.

Cobb offered his opinion that escapement was the best way to conserve salmon. And he recommended that an aggressive program of allowing adequate numbers of fish to “perform the final and most important function of their lives unmolested” be combined with the careful work of hatcheries to supplement the fish runs.

“If unrestricted fishing is to prevail, however, with a dependence upon hatcheries alone to repair the ravages of man, the industry will suffer seriously,” he wrote in summary.

A perfect storm roiled commercial fishing in the early 20th century and split fixed gear (fish wheels, traps and reef nets) fishermen who owned the location of their efforts and mobile gear (trolling, seining and gill nets) who could go anywhere. As salmon runs continued to decline, individual harvests did too, but due to competition and unrestricted participation, overall harvest didn’t decline as much, they turned on each other in a series of ferocious citizen initiative fights. Most fixed gear was eliminated by the voters by 1928.

Secondly, sport fishing was booming. At the time of the farm crises, there was an explosion in subsistence fishing that was, and still is, indistinguishable from sport, a component of the public’s stake in salmon that remains unrecognized to this day. But with this growth emerged sportsman’s clubs and with the clubs emerged a new political force.

And thirdly, movers and shakers in Olympia realized that the county game management system was untenable and that statewide management was essential. Gov. Ernest Lister appointed L.H Darwin in 1913 as both the Fish Commissioner and the Chief Game Warden, making him the first director of what would eventually become the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. Darwin believed strongly that fish and wildlife resources should be managed first from a conservation standpoint and the emerging ‘sporting’ ethic including ‘fair chase’ ethics championed by Teddy Roosevelt a decade prior. This was, of course, anathema to the commercial fishing interests and to the prior 30 years of fisheries management.

In 1921, in order to promote “efficiency, order and economy” the state legislature, at the request of Gov. Louis Hart, tossed Lister’s idea and specified separate leaders of the Department of Fisheries and the Department of Game and Game Fish in a Civil Administration Code revision. After a decade of turmoil between the foundering county system, the nattering of local sportsman groups and the intense lobbying of commercial fishing and processing interests, the legislature sent an initiative to the voters to formalize the elimination of the county system and a separation between conservation management of deer and trout and commercial facilitation of salmon harvest.

And that’s how salmon management became divorced from conservation and formally trapped by industry. Preserve the fishery over preserving the fish. Maximize fishery value rather than the value of the resource to the public. Maintain the highest utilization of the resource given other constraints.

And that’s why salmon management from 1890 to now, is never more than a hop skip and a jump from exhaustion of the resource.

In 1951 (yes, 1951!) the Washington Department of Fisheries produced a pamphlet entitled, “The Salmon Crisis.” It’s a jaw dropper in the context of what we’re facing now.

It begins by proclaiming that salmon are partly responsible for the industrial growth of Washington and the Northwest and that income derived from them (by whom?) in the first half of the 20th Century must be counted in the billions of dollars. And then, “Paradoxically,” the pamphlet explains, “the progress that salmon have helped make possible in Washington has imperiled their own future.”

And in the next sentence, with not a speck of self-awareness, it describes the high point of salmon abundance as “12,300,000 cases [of salmon] packed” and describes the decline in fish runs as resulting in only 2,350,000 cases packed. Not 12 million fish allowed to spawn, but 12 million cans of fish.

It’s easy to criticize the mindset of maximum extraction of a natural resource of managers in the 19th and early 20th centuries even though they very much did realize the damage that was being done. Then, like now, they had political masters and the masters were all about wealth. Nothing’s changed. The rationales have simply become more subtle, the verbiage more sophisticated. But in the end salmon are still managed for industrial harvest, not sustainability and certainly not for spiritual sustenance (aka ‘sport’).

Ninety years ago, John Cobb came as close as anyone ever has in understanding the problem. He suggested that it might be impossible for the states to manage salmon because salmon don’t stay in their home state or even home nation and by their very nature commercial fishing interests will adapt in any way possible to take as much of the resource as they are physically and legally able to take. He admitted he didn’t have a good answer for federal management of salmon. I don’t think NOAA Fisheries does either. But that is probably what needs to happen.

The Washington Coastal Conservation Association newsletter in my inbox recently contained an item of great interest. It was an announcement of the inclusion in the 2022 supplemental state budget that directs the WDFW to produce a report documenting total harvest-related mortalities to ESA-listed Puget Sound chinook, to compare that to established conservation objectives and include an analysis of the annual state-tribal allocation of Puget Sound salmon. The report is to focus on concerns of over harvest and “a growing inequity of Puget Sound chinook and coho harvests between Puget Sound treaty tribes and state fisheries, including recreation fisheries.”

I wish I could celebrate that. Even if it does happen, and even if it happens fairly, I can’t. Measuring the harvest of Puget Sound salmon only in Puget Sound is meaningless. John Cobb knew that in 1930.

I read the words of these dead fisheries managers, their warnings year after year after year, and it is beyond frustrating.

The Puget Sound-based non tribal commercial fishing fleet and processors figured this out years ago. Each spring they pull out of Ballard and other marinas and motor up to Alaska. They do that explicitly to evade the WDFW, the ESA listings, the co-management regime and most of all, the Boldt Decision. If you and I fish Possession Bar or Buoy 10 we are subject to Boldt. If you fish Sitka or Nootka, you are not. The majority of commercial salmon licensees in Southeast Alaska are Washington state residents in Washington registered vessels. I would think a similar situation is the case in sport licenses too.

These guys are not evil. And they are not stupid. In fact, they’re probably the best fishing minds in the world. They’ve taken that competence, and they apply it with vigor in the interception of Columbia River and coastal salmon and Fraser River and other Canadian spawned fish.

Their British Columbia counterparts, no less competent and no less ambitious, respond by intercepting the fish (salmon bound for Puget Sound and the PNW) passing through their waters off Haida Gwaii. And the interception is protected, even codified in the Pacific Salmon Treaty.

So Governors Inslee and Brown, and the proud state senators and representatives in Olympia and Salem, pretend they have control over their fisheries, ordering their ODFW and WDFW directors to impose pitiful allocations and bag and take restrictions like an impoverished single mother with six kids and one cookie.

Pacific Northwest salmon need a governing body that doesn’t exist right now that is beyond the reach of local and temporal politics. As unpalatable as that is in this political climate, it’s the only solution that makes any sense and it’s probably an impossibility. Can you imagine some of these big-fish-small-pond fellas giving up their little bully pulpits? Surrendering their ‘expertise’ to egg-headed scientists? Me neither. Still, there are voices. CCA, Hatchery and Wild Coexist and many many others. In the agencies, too.

In the end, we each have a choice, don’t we? Maybe foolishly, I choose optimism.  ssj

Leave a Reply