Trolling with a guide off Malcolm Island near the northern end of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, we watch the rod tip, hoping for a strike. It’s 6:30 a.m., and the sky over the Coast Mountains looks like the underbelly of a salmon. The rod tip dips sharply, and I let out the line, trying to keep the fish on. I don’t want to blow it; I haven’t caught a lot of salmon lately. Regional salmon fishing has been inconsistent over the last decade, spiking in 2010 when 30 million sockeye salmon returned to the Fraser River, the best run in a century, with similarly strong runs returning along the West Coast. ¶ That run was great news for fishermen and everyone concerned about the iconic species of the Pacific Northwest, but it’s been a mixed bag of good and bad news for local salmon of late. The past year or so has brought significant developments for salmon on several fronts—including some serious threats.
The Good News
The region’s salmon fishery got an historic boost last fall with the removal of older dams along the Elwha River. In mid-September, contractors began the three-year process of simultaneously removing the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams in order to restore a free-flowing river. That project—the largest of its kind in U.S. history—will reopen more than 70 miles of pristine spawning and rearing habitat in the Elwha River and its tributaries at a cost of more than $324 million. Salmon populations there should increase from 3,000 to nearly 400,000 as all five species of Pacific salmon return to one of the region’s most productive salmon streams.
“The removal of the Elwha dams is very good news,” says Tony Floor, director of fishing affairs for the Northwest Marine Trade Association and a former Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesman. “[In the past,] the Elwha produced some of the largest king salmon known to man, fish up to 100 pounds.”
In addition to growing large kings, the increased habitat will improve the health of the state fishery. “It will open up tremendous spawning areas,” says Jim Aggergaard at Catchmore Charters in Anacortes. “As soon as the dam is removed, they can pass the lower four miles, up to Lake Sutherland and tributary streams.”
The weather appears to be on the salmon’s side as well. “La Niña conditions are great for skiing and salmon,” Floor says. “The lower temperatures trigger a higher survival rate for salmon, which makes for outstanding fishing. We just experienced one of the biggest king runs on the Columbia in the last 50 years.”
And, for now, local salmon appear to have dodged one very dangerous bullet: Reports that infectious salmon anemia (ISA)—a pathogen linked to aquaculture that has killed millions of farmed salmon in Europe and Chile—was detected in British Columbia could not be confirmed. That’s a huge relief, at least for now, but leading researchers and scientists continue to stay on high alert.
In fact, our state gets high marks from Floor for battling other dangerous viruses; he says state officials have dealt swiftly with viruses in hatchery fish, destroying fingerlings in the case of outbreaks. But he sees the recent ISA scare as an example of what can happen if governments don’t pay attention. “When salmon farming got started, Washington allowed only 13 permits in Puget Sound,” he says. “British Columbia went wild, issuing hundreds of permits.” Our state, says Floor, is more vigilant: “Canada took a much more liberal approach. They have learned by baptism by fire: virus outbreaks or sea lice explosions. I’m a proponent of hatchery salmon and farmed fish, but I think hatcheries and farmed salmon need to be scrutinized. I think Washington has done a good job with this.”
The Bad News
Some worry about the ecological impacts of local farmed salmon, which, like farmed Atlantic salmon, can escape and compete with wild salmon for habitat. Farming has also taken an economic toll on Northwest wild salmon fisheries.
And while the Fraser River run fueled optimism about wild salmon recovery around the region, not all areas or species have enjoyed such a resurgence. The reasons for that aren’t clear; despite extensive fish-tagging and research efforts, the data is still incomplete. Wild chinook salmon in Puget Sound remain on the threatened species list. Coho salmon runs in Puget Sound have stagnated, surviving at low levels. The regional salmon fishery represents a very complicated picture, with some species—such as sockeye and pink salmon—booming, while other species—sometimes, king and coho—struggle, at least in the Puget Sound region.
Fears for Northwest salmon are leading some state lawmakers, including Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, to take a firm stance against another threat that’s brewing: genetically modified Atlantic salmon. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is considering whether to approve the AquAdvantage salmon, which would be the very first modified animals on American dinner tables. Many are concerned that these so-called “Frankenfish,” modified with a growth-hormone gene to grow larger and faster than natural salmon, are as yet untested, and could contribute to certain cancers in humans. There is also the worry that the fast-growing fish will flood the market, harming our state’s fishing industry. While the FDA is considering the issue, two pieces of legislation are making the rounds: one to ban genetically modified fish outright; the other, to require labeling. In February, consumer groups urged the FDA to require rigorous testing of the fish before approval. The issue remains a hot topic for lawmakers, environmental and consumer groups, and the Canadian company AquaBounty Technologies, which created the AquAdvantage salmon. There is no word yet on when the FDA will make its decision.
Despite the threats to their survival, salmon runs persist—occasionally even thrive. My fish, for one, is a fighter, taking out line, making angry rushes back toward the kelp bed. But slowly and carefully, I work it into the boat. The beautiful 12-pound king thrashes as my guide slips it into a net.
“Welcome aboard,” he says to the fish. “You’re the guest of honor at a dinner party in Seattle.”