Making a path for Columbia salmon

First Nations groups dream of creating safe passage for fish

Eighth in our series on the Columbia River Treaty

They call it the Salmon Cannon.

One of the technologies being used to shepherd Pacific salmon past the U.S. Columbia River dams currently blocking them from their traditional spawning grounds utilizes a pneumatic tube that sucks up the fish and fires them back into the water upstream. The company that supplies this technology is aptly named Whooshh Innovations.

“It’s simple, it’s proven effective, and they’ve been using this technology on the U.S. side for some time now,” former federal candidate Bill Green told the Star.

“Another option, which we call ‘track and truck’, consists of constructing a facility that the fish swim into. You collect the fish into a tank truck and then release them back into the river upstream.”

The fish begin their journey on the west coast of Washington State, coming in from the Pacific Ocean. They work their way past 10 dams primarily by using fish ladders, which are currently being used downstream of Chief Joseph Dam but not north of it — largely due to the fact that salmon weren’t taken into consideration during the signing of the Columbia River Treaty in 1964.

Green is the Ktunaxa nation’s director on the Canadian Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fisheries Commission (CCRIFC), which has a stated aim of seeing Pacific salmon given access to the full Columbia River watershed. Along with a coalition of First Nations groups, he’s been working for over two decades on this project.

And it seems like they might be picking up momentum. Down in the Colville Confederated Tribes they’ve created the Chief Joseph Hatchery, where they’ve begun introducing new salmon populations to the river and tracking their progress. According to Sinixt elder Michael Marchand, that’s the least they can do.

“The river is one aspect, but we also need to get involved in the management of the entire Pacific fishery because there are harvest issues too. If international fleets all pick them up in the Pacific, then that’s a problem for us,” he said.

“We’re just one relatively small tribe, we can’t control the world.”

That’s why Marchand is a member of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians (ATNI), which is a coalition that aims to bring salmon issues to the Columbia River Treaty renegotiation table. They’re currently embroiled in a legal case that pits them against the United States government, and recently they had a meeting that brought a large array of tribes together.

“We had a meeting where we were invited, as well as the Canadian tribes. We’ve never had a meeting like that before, where we were laying out our concerns for the government and talking about the issues. Salmon is still a part of everyone’s culture, even in Canada, and it’s a part of our traditional stories.”

According to the CCRIFC’s website, restoring salmon to the Columbia will require “a lot of research and cooperation between the US and Canada to be successful over the long term. This can only be accomplished by taking a step-by-step approach and sharing some responsibility and cost between the two countries.”

Fisheries and water resources expert Alan Thomson of Nelson has been looking into issues surrounding fish passage and dams for 25 years, and he said attitudes have changed dramatically in that time.

“It’s always been said, up until about 10 or 15 years ago, that it was technically not feasible to get salmon over the Grand Coulee. Now the consensus is the technology exists to get salmon back up into Canada,” he said.

But there are other issues to consider, such as the effect of re-introducing a fish population that’s been missing or extinct for nearly 80 years. Concerns about the potential effects on the ecosystem have been brought up, and observers are worried about the introduction of invasive species and pathogens.

Another issue: it would be expensive.

“I have no doubt that getting fish up here would be a good thing, in the balance, for the Canadian portion of the Columbia River as long as these outstanding concerns are met,” said Thomson.

He believes this could happen within his lifetime. But the salmon would now have to navigate in an environment that is radically different than the one in which they evolved. In many cases riverbanks have been submerged or washed away, while the course of the river itself has changed. In many Columbia River sections, the free-flowing water has been replaced by reservoirs.

Some of the questions the ATNI and the CCRIFC are mulling include where to obtain the donor stock fish without interrupting another habitat, where to build hatcheries and how many will be needed, and figuring out who will bear the cost of introducing new technologies.

“Long-term restoration will take time, and will have to recover each stock one at a time, but it is possible and advanced technologies and strategies to pass salmon safely around dams are a reality today and will continue to improve in the future,” the commission writes.

But Sinixt elder Marilyn James figures the biggest problem is that the dams open their gates and release water into the U.S. without any consideration of the impact on the salmon’s environment.

“We’re obligated to give the Americans the water when they need it and to hold it back when they don’t, and that’s what it’s about — not the goddamn fish. If it was about the fish we would say we have an obligation and we’re going to wait for the proper spawn time for these species before we send you water.”

And this isn’t a fight they’re going to give up on. According to Marchand, this has been a “lifetime project” that is crucial for ensuring future generations can reap the benefits. He won’t be satisfied until the salmon are once again teeming.

“It’s not going to be easy,” Marchand said. “But that’s our goal.”