Salmon savers


1113 Salmon 01Seven people and projects seeking to restore the salmon economy.

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BY JON BELL

1113 Salmon 01
// Photo by Joseph Eastburn

Some shine a flawless metallic silver, looking strong, vibrant and as if they’re on a mission. Others lumber by, darkened, dinged and ready to find a long, final resting place. Some are huge and heavy; others are slim and small. All are heading in the same direction together, upstream, and all just keep coming.

They are the storied Columbia River salmon — Chinook, coho, a sprinkling of pinks — making their way through the fish ladders and past the viewing windows at the Bonneville Dam near Cascade Locks in late September. At times, so many swim by in an endless parade, they nearly fill the windows and block out the light from above. As of October 1, more than 1.2 million spring, summer and fall Chinook had passed through Bonneville — the largest salmon runs since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed the dam and started counting in 1938. Driving the strong returns was a mix of optimal ocean conditions, improved dam passage for adult fish returning upstream and juveniles heading out to the ocean, and several years of habitat restoration projects.

Yet despite the solid and hopeful returns this year, the numbers tell only part of the story. While more than a million fish may seem like plenty, it’s a far cry from the estimated 15 million that used to come back to the Columbia every year before dams, development, loss of habitat, overfishing and water diversion for agriculture came into play. Thirteen species of Columbia River salmon and steelhead are still considered endangered. In addition, close to 85% of the fish coming back this year are hatchery fish, not wild. There’s a good chance, based on historical trends, that 2013’s high counts will drop back down again.

This year’s salmon returns on the Columbia River symbolize much about the big-picture salmon scene in Oregon, not only on its rivers, but out in the Pacific as well. It is a situation whereby commercial salmon fishermen, hit hard by disastrous seasons and even full-on closures over the past decade, are finding a little relief, albeit temporary. Last year’s 1.9-million-pound haul was below the 2.4 million pounds of 2011, but prices rose enough to value the fishery at around $6.7 million for both years. That’s relatively small compared to other fisheries in Oregon’s commercial fishing industry, which brought in total revenue of $128 million last year. The 2012 crab harvest, for example, was worth $29 million; pink shrimp hit $25 million and groundfish topped $24 million. The improved salmon outlook for this year adds even a little more promise for the 400 or so active salmon vessels in Oregon.

The salmon scene here includes a wide range of stakeholders — fishermen, tribes, conservation groups, farmers and ranchers, government agencies and others — working to restore and preserve valuable salmon habitat and further improve dam passage. At the same time, many of those players also have to balance their own interests, be it power generation or crop irrigation, with those of Oregon’s salmon. There is innovation here, too. Researchers are using genetic information to better manage fish stocks. That same technology is allowing consumers to track the salmon they eat back to the fisherman who caught it. And progressive restaurateurs and suppliers, while still limited in how much Oregon salmon they can offer, are raising the bar for sustainably caught salmon and other seafood in Oregon and around the world.

Oregon Business cast a big net and reeled in a mix of people and projects that are working to not only revitalize the salmon economy in Oregon, but to restore the Northwest’s signature fish for future generations to come. In 2013, the outlook for a thriving salmon economy is ambiguous, but the stakes are clear.

“The good news is that if we do the right things in the right order, we can bring the commercial salmon industry back from where it is now to be many times larger than it is,” says Glen Spain, Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “For folks like us, that means jobs and dollars and paid-for mortgages and paid-for boats.”


Kristofor Lofgren
Sustainable Salmon, Please

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Bamboo Sushi owner Kristofor Lofgren
// Photo by Joseph Eastburn

Before Kristofor Lofgren opened his first Bamboo Sushi restaurant in southeast Portland in 2008, he noticed a disclaimer on other restaurants’ menus that said something along the lines of “Whenever possible, we source sustainably.”

“To me, saying ‘whenever possible’ negates everything that comes after that,” Lofgren says. “We decided to say that we only ever source sustainably, because that’s a statement that means something.” Five years later, Bamboo Sushi has two thriving Portland locations following that practice to the letter by sourcing sustainable seafood from around the world, largely direct from fishermen themselves. The restaurant only sources seafood that meets strict sustainability guidelines set up by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Blue Ocean Institute, which help businesses and consumers purchase seafood that’s fished or farmed in environmentally friendly ways. Among many green certifications, the restaurant became the first sushi eatery in the world to be certified by the Marine Stewardship Council.

Bamboo is able to source some of its roughly 50,000 pounds of seafood each year here in Oregon, including some albacore, pink shrimp, oysters and sea urchins. Oregon salmon, however, has yet to work its way to the top of Bamboo’s list.

{pullquote}1.9 million: Pounds of salmon landed by commercial fishers in Oregon in 2012{/pullquote}

“We get some salmon in Oregon,” Lofgren says, “but it’s not as consistent as the supply we get from Alaska” in terms of quantity and quality. That said, Lofgren’s big- picture view is that more and more purveyors demanding sustainable seafood will lead to better fishing practices and healthier supply chains all over the globe, including in Oregon. Already, he says, Bamboo Sushi has helped inspire big-time players like Whole Foods Market and even McDonald’s to up their commitment to sustainability. Throw in the possibility of improved Oregon salmon runs in the future and Lofgren is encouraged.

“We would love to source as locally as we can,” he says. “We are excited by the salmon runs returning this year, and if we end up seeing a multi-year recovery, we will be more than happy to be out there supporting that.”


Mary Wahl
Ranching and Restoring Together

A long stretch of the southern Oregon Coast is known as the Wild Rivers Coast because it’s home to five National Wild and Scenic rivers, pristine old-growth forests and some of the healthiest remaining native salmon runs in the continental U.S.

The same stretch of coast has also been called the Dark Coast, because from Bandon south to Port Orford, the coastline looks almost completely dark to passing ships. The reason is simple: There is very little development along those 30 miles. Instead, there is verdant ranchland that farmers and ranchers have for generations used for sheep, cattle, timber and cranberries.

{pullquote}4,483: Number of commercial fishing jobs in Oregon in 2011{/pullquote}

The two nicknames might seem to set the stage for an environmental and agricultural collision, but not to Mary Wahl and her family, the fourth generation to raise sheep and harvest timber on their ranch at the mouth of the Elk River. Instead Wahl — who managed the city of Portland’s watershed program for 10 years — and her family have been blending habitat restoration into their operation for years. Part of their goal is to help native salmon and other species, but there’s more to it than that.

“We want to conserve both habitat land and agricultural land,” says Wahl.

At the Elk River Ranch, that’s meant fencing off 25% of the ranch’s 860 acres to keep livestock from trampling through prime fish habitat and polluting waterways with their waste. The family also turned one low boggy area into a pond that serves as an important off-channel estuary habitat for young salmon.

Wahl says other local ranchers have taken similar steps to preserve habitat; many have also worked with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, which will help ranchers install water lines for livestock if animals are kept out of streams. In addition, several stakeholders in the area are working on a conservation easement option for area ranchers who may eventually want to sell their lands.

Another benefactor from salmon conservation efforts is sparsely populated Curry County, home to several renowned fishing rivers. According to economic impact research conducted for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, recreational anglers spent more than $10.3 million on everything from accommodations to food and travel expenses in the county in 2008.


Mark Newell
Making a Go of It

A commercial salmon troller out of Newport since 1975, Mark Newell remembers a time when all of the state’s fisheries were wide open — no permits required. He also remembers what it was like 15 or 20 years ago, when more than 1,000 commercial fishing boats plied the waters off the Oregon Coast for Pacific salmon. Nowadays, even though there are licenses for more than 1,000 boats, fewer than half are actively in use.

“The fleet has shrunk because we’ve had so many bad years,” says Newell, who’s also a wholesale buyer and processor. “A lot of guys have moved on.”

The declining salmon numbers have pushed many Oregon fishermen like Newell to diversify into multiple states and into some of Oregon’s larger fisheries, such as pink shrimp, Dungeness crab and albacore. In Newport, commercial fishermen reported landing about 1.3 million pounds of Chinook in 2004; the number plummeted to 3,300 pounds during the disastrous 2008 season and was back up to about 320,000 pounds last year.

Newell, who is also a member of the Oregon Salmon Commission, says that, like the increased number of salmon returning to the Columbia this year, the fish numbers have been strong along the coast as well, so the ocean fishing this year has improved. He’s been at this long enough to know, however, that a good year this year doesn’t mean it’ll be that way in 2014 too.

“They are the best they’ve been in five years,” he says, “but you never know what the run will be like next year.”


Fish Passage
A Big Dam Difference

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Bonneville Dam has made improvements to help adult and young fish pass up and down the river.
// Photo by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

There aren’t a lot of people who are going to say that the four dams along the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington have done much for healthy salmon populations. Many may also question whether all the money that has been spent helping fish get past the dams in the past couple decades has been all that effective.

Yet at least some of the efforts in recent years by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and others connected to the dams appear to be helping. “We have played a big part in that,” says Diana Fredlund, a spokesperson for the Corps, about this year’s larger-than-average Chinook returns.

In addition to improvements made over the years to fish ladders for adult salmon and steelhead coming upstream, the Corps in recent years has been focusing on helping juveniles traveling downstream find their way past the dams. At The Dalles Dam, a new wall guides juveniles coming over the spillway toward deeper areas of the river and away from shallower spots and lurking predators. And a collector originally meant for ice and log debris at Bonneville Dam proved so effective at juvenile fish passage that it became one of the primary bypasses for young salmon in 2004.

In August the Corps was also part of an $800,000 project to remove a small dam on the Sandy River, a tributary of the Columbia, which was expected to improve salmon spawning habitat.


Tribal Tides
Slowly Rising

Treaties. Lawsuits. Hatcheries. Genetics. And now more than a million salmon making their way back up the Columbia River.

Paul Lumley has seen plenty in his more than 20 years with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which oversees management policy for the Yakama, Warm Springs, Umatilla and Nez Perce tribes. He’s been executive director of the commission for the past four years.

{pullquote}1,222,628: Number of returning Chinook salmon counted at Bonneville Dam through Sept. 30 of this year{/pullquote}

“The abundance solves a lot of our problems for the moment,” says Lumley, a member of the Yakama tribe. “There has not been much fighting about fish this year.” In addition to fighting for fishing rights guaranteed by treaties signed in 1855 — with some cases going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — Northwest tribes have also played a major role in recent years in habitat restoration, hatchery production efforts and genetic identification.

The CRITFC’s genetics lab — a partnership with the University of Idaho that focuses on production, supplementation and recovery of Columbia Basin salmon — is considered a preeminent program in the region. Tribe-led stream restoration projects at places like Shitike Creek on the Warm Springs reservation, and an agreement that adds more water to salmon habitat every year near Hanford Reach, have also helped bolster fish populations in the basin. And the effect, especially recently, has been an economic and environmental boon for the tribes. One tangible sign: In Cascade Locks, Terrie Brigham and her sister, Kim Brigham Campbell, members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, are opening a retail shop to sell Columbia-caught fish.

“Tribes that haven’t seen fish in decades are seeing them again. It’s wonderful,” Lumley says. “We have businesses popping up and down the river — fishing tackle, tourism, recreation — that had gone away. It’s a success.”


Estuary Restoration
A Coastal Comeback

Development, diking and draining have gone a long way over the past 150 years to deplete important wetlands and estuary habitat along the Oregon Coast — habitat salmon need to thrive. The Tillamook Basin area alone has lost more than 80% of its estuarial lands and wetlands, according to Dick Vander Schaaf, associate director for the Nature Conservancy’s Coastal Marine Program.

To help correct that course, the Nature Conservancy and other organizations have been working to restore and protect salmon habitat on the coast. One project, near where the Miami River enters Tillamook Bay, restored more than 40 acres with native plantings and other efforts. Just two years later, salmon smolt were using the revitalized habitat. Another project in the works will tend to 66 acres along the Kilchis River.

{pullquote}1,000+ Number of permits for the salmon troll fishery in 2012{/pullquote}

Vander Schaaf notes that estuary restoration isn’t limited to environmentalists. One of the previous owners of part of the restored land on the Miami was closely tied to the Tillamook Anglers, a fishery organization that runs a small hatchery in Netarts Bay.

“Fishermen are very much engaged in this,” Vander Schaaf says. “It’s very well understood that producing fish is good business in the basin.”

The Wild Salmon Center, a nonprofit headquartered in Portland, has also turned its attention to coastal areas, particularly in the Tillamook and Clatsop state forests, home to five salmon-rich rivers. The organization has been working with Gov. Kitzhaber and the Oregon Board of Forestry on setting aside conservation areas to help protect existing habitat.

“The exciting thing about Oregon is that we still have some healthy runs of wild salmon, and we have the opportunity to protect them,” says Guido Rahr, the organization’s president and CEO.


The Gene Scene
Project Croos

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Researchers and fishermen discuss recording data to understand salmon behavior for Project CROOS.
//Photo by Gil Sylvia

There’s an easy way for Oregon’s commercial salmon fleet to help protect weak runs of salmon: Don’t catch them. But if they don’t know exactly which fish are struggling — and exactly where those fish are — the only way to do that is to not fish for salmon at all. That’s not much of an option for fishermen who make their living at sea.

But a unique project, led in part by researchers at Oregon State University and borne out of the collapse of Klamath River salmon stocks in 2005, has been collecting genetic information about salmon in the Pacific Ocean that can be used to identify weak stocks and guide fishermen toward healthier ones.

Called Project CROOS, Collaborative Research on Oregon Ocean Salmon, the project has so far involved more than 300 fishermen in Oregon — and several hundred more in Washington and California — as well as fishery managers and researchers. The fishermen take samples from the fish they catch, which the others then analyze and record in a searchable database. According to Gil Sylvia, director of OSU’s Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station, Project CROOS now has a database of more than 60,000 data points from an equal number of fish.

“Using this genetic information in real time, we can tell you how many fish a boat caught, when they caught each fish, where they caught it and at what depth,” Sylvia says. “It’s really a groundbreaking approach.”

{pullquote}480: Number of active vessels in the fishery in 2012{/pullquote}

The project is especially helpful because it could allow managers to close one particularly weak run of salmon and guide the fleet to other areas of the ocean. The technology also lends itself to marketing sustainable and locally caught wild salmon, which commands a premium from today’s consumers. Some of the technology from CROOS, developed by a Newport company called Advanced Research Corporation, has been spun off into a platform called Fish Trax, aimed not only at fishery management but also at seafood buyers, distributors and consumers.

Sylvia is hopeful about the collaborative effort, but he also knows it’s going to take a lot more than that to improve the lot of Northwest salmon. “We could lose the salmon troll fishery if we can’t figure this out,” he says. “How much is it worth to people? What does society want to do? Those are the questions we are facing and need to have some honest discussions about.”




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