Don Ryan  /  AP file
Salmon pass through the Bonneville Dam fish ladder on the Columbia River, during a salmon run in North Bonneville, Wash., in this April 2001 photo. Usually at this time of year the Columbia River's spring chinook salmon are heading upstream over fish ladders in the tens of thousands to spawn, but not this year.  
By Reporter
NBC News
updated 5/5/2005 7:54:43 PM ET 2005-05-05T23:54:43

Springtime on the Columbia River usually means hordes of Chinook salmon swimming up the river, nourishing on their way centuries-old Indian traditions and a voracious commercial fishery.

This year, however, thousands of salmon seem to have gone missing — and no one knows why.

"We’ve got a big mystery on our hands, a run of salmon that seems to have disappeared," said Stuart Ellis, a harvest management biologist with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

Scientists had initially expected this year’s salmon run to number about 225,000 fish swimming past the Bonneville Dam where they’re counted. But, as of last Thursday, scientists had only counted about 26,000 since the beginning of the year.

A group of fish managers and tribal representatives met Monday to revise their estimate, knocking the number of fish they expect to pass from the original estimate of 225,000 to an unofficial guess of between 70,000 and 100,000.

Harsh consequences
For the first time the Indian tribes — who have for centuries relied on the salmon for their cultural and economic well-being — have been forced to get the fish used in their springtime ceremonies from other sources, some donated from sympathetic fishermen downstream and others from freezers storing last year’s catch.

Charles Hudson, the manager of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said that the effects of the dearth of Chinook this year run deep, deeper than just having to rely on frozen fish for the annual ceremonies.

The tribes also depends on the fish for much of their daily food, and were initially given a seasonal allotment of 25,000 fish to feed about 20,000 people this year. So far, tribal fishermen have caught under 5,000 fish, according to the commission's statistics.

The tribes are also dependent on salmon for much of their economic sustenance, but it looks as though that will also be jeopardized this year.

"It looks very likely that there will be no — zero — commercial fishery this year," said Hudson.

Significant drop in tourism
On April 20, federal fish managers shut down the entire Columbia River above the Bonneville dam to all commercial and sport fishing.

This has resulted in commercial fisherman losing one quarter to one third of their profits for the entire year, according to Oliver Waldman, the executive director of Salmon for All, a fisherman’s advocacy organization.

"They’re broke," he said. The Chinook are their most important catch, the most valuable fish on the West Coast, netting the fishermen $5-6 per pound.

Now, however, "the fishery is sitting at the dock," Waldman said.

Bill Witt, who owns a fishing guide company that runs frequent trips on the Columbia, estimates that if the river is closed until June, his business will lose at least $25,000, about one-tenth of its income for the season.

Within four days of the fishery shutting down, Gimme-A-Go Fishing Adventures lost about $3,000, according to its owner, Jon Ball.

"I’ve been sitting at home. I had the last three days off," he said on Tuesday. He had to cancel all of the river tours he had booked for the weekend, as well as a television feature that was to be filmed from his boat.

Ball noted that it’s not only sportsmen like himself who depend on the sport fishing industry, but also the riverside towns who rely on tourists and fishermen to rent hotel rooms and visit stores and restaurants. Now none of those businesses are getting the expected seasonal rush.

"Everybody’s screwed," said Ball.


Unsolved mystery
So what happened to the fish?

Were they victimized by the wily sea lions that have discovered how to climb fish ladders at the Bonneville Dam, sitting there all day and devouring the unfortunate fish that try to swim past? Has there been some significant change in ocean conditions that have killed thousands of fish? Or is there some secret black market downriver that’s catching all the fish as they try to swim up the river?

Sea lions are easy targets of the public and the government fish managers, who have begun to blast fireworks on the Bonneville Dam fish ladders where many lions have taken up residence. But even the hundreds of sea lions that now live around the dam couldn’t eat nearly enough fish to account for the tiny run.

The fish market is also closely monitored by government regulatory agencies, so a massive black market is highly unlikely.

Scientists say they haven’t seen any evidence of a dramatic change in ocean conditions that could cause so many fish to die, but that could be a likely problem, according to Steve Williams, the assistant director of the fish program at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Such changes could include increased predation of the fish, or a change in water temperatures. Williams said scientists have not been able to pinpoint what changes have occurred that have hurt fish populations.

Williams noted that the annual springtime smelt fish run up the river was also nearly nonexistent this season. Smelt runs have not in years past been accurate predictors of salmon runs up the river, but both fish would be susceptible to altered ocean conditions, so the same problem could be to blame for reduced populations of both fish.

Most people involved have established their own theories. Ball, the fisherman, said he suspects the salmon have been tricked by lower water levels caused by last summer’s drought into delaying their run up the river. He said he also thinks the sea lions may have quite a bit to do with it.

Ellis and Williams both agree that none of these problems individually should take all the blame. If anything, the low numbers of salmon are the result of a number of factors influencing their ability to swim past the Bonneville Dam to their upstream spawning grounds.

Room for optimism
Williams said that despite the dismal numbers and initial panic, he and others are now looking at the salmon run with "slight optimism."

"Last week we were definitely in crisis mode," he said. But the increase in the number of fish making their way upstream is cause for optimism, he said, and he expects the run this year to at least hit the minimum expectation of 70,000 fish.

Williams also said that the commercial and sport fisheries might, if the count continues to trend upward, be opened again soon. He said fish managers are evaluating the necessity of the closure on a weekly basis, and could decide as soon as next week that salmon numbers are sufficient to warrant it reopening.

Even if the fishery were to reopen soon, however, it would be too late for many of those people dependent on the fish. Most of the Indian celebrations are done for the season, and most of the commercial fishermen have departed the salmon fishery, looking for greener pastures in other Pacific Northwest regions.

"They’re hoping, with a great, fervent hope, that the Alaska season will bring some revenues to them and their families," said Waldman, of Salmon for All. Even if the river were reopened to the fishermen next week, they’ve already departed north and couldn’t be repositioned for the Chinook catch.

Scientists are careful to note that the fish count continues through early June, but say that even if it turned out that the run was simply delayed this year, or even if daily counts jumped into the thousands, this year’s run still won’t come close to the numbers initially predicted.

K.C. Johnston is a researcher on the NBC News Assignment Desk.

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