The Canadian Columbia River basin, from the mainstem of the Columbia River at the United States-Canada border, upstream to its headwaters, once supported large runs of anadromous (ocean-going) salmon that were important to the ecosystem and people that lived here.
Land-locked sockeye salmon (kokanee) are still common, but they do not provide the same ecosystem services or cultural role that anadromous salmon did. Anadromous salmon were lost from the basin in the early 1940s, when Grand Coulee Dam was built across the Columbia River in the United States.
The return of these fish is very important to the people of the Columbia River Basin, particularly the First Nations in Canada, for whom salmon are an integral part of culture, spirituality and economy. In the mid 1990s, the Canadian Columbia River Inter-tribal Fisheries Commission was formed by First Nations of the Columbia Basin, to restore anadromous salmon to their historic range in Canada. Please scroll through the content below to learn of the history of salmon in the Canadian Columbia River Basin, and the efforts CCRIFC is engaged in to help restore them.
History and future of salmon in the Columbia Basin
History of Upper Columbia River salmon and what was lost to a people
The Columbia River once supported some of the largest runs of wild salmon in the world. Adult salmon entering the mouth of the Columbia River would make their journey upstream from the ocean to spawn and complete their lifecycle. Before the arrival of European settlers, it is estimated that millions of Chinook and Sockeye salmon and steelhead swam far up the Columbia River, across what is now the US-Canadian border, and spawned throughout the drainage in Canada (Figure 1). Chinook salmon were the largest of these species and made the furthest journey, to the headwaters at Columbia Lake. Salmon were lost from the entire Upper Columbia River drainage in Canada in the early 1940s, after the US government constructed Grand Coulee Dam to generate power. Salmon can currently pass 9 dams on the Columbia River, as these dams have fish ladders, but Grand Coulee was not built with a fish ladder or any other strategy to pass salmon. The current upstream distribution of salmon in the Columbia River is Chief Joseph Dam, 310km downstream from the border.
For thousands of years, salmon supported thriving Canadian First Nation and US tribal cultures. Our nutrition, cultural and spiritual identity and economy were intimately linked to the yearly salmon return. We were never consulted about the construction of the dam that extirpated salmon from our rivers. . The loss represents a severe impact to our traditional connections to the water and our spiritual, cultural and economic well-being. The loss also represents an economic and cultural impact to non-First Nations that recently settled in the US and Canadian Columbia basin and other coastal residents in the US and Canada, as salmon migrated past all of these people’s homes and supported fisheries everywhere they migrated. There are now many more dams in the Columbia Basin, including seven large dams placed across historical salmon migration routes in Canada. None of these dams have fishways, ladders or any other devices that would allow fish to safely pass. First Nations formed the Canadian Columbia River Inter-tribal Fisheries Commission (CCRIFC) in the early 1990s, as an organization devoted to salmon restoration and habitat protection in the Columbia Basin.
The Pacific salmon lifecycle and their role in the ecosystem
The anadromous (ocean-migrating) salmon lifecycle begins when a female’s egg are fertilized during spawning. Eggs develop over a period of several months until they hatch into alevins. These alevins develop in the gravel of the river where they are protected, feeding on yolk from their eggs.
Yolk nourishes alevins until they develop into fry, which swim up out of the gravel and begin feeding in the river or in lakes. They feed off of small insects or crustaceans in freshwater for several months to years, depending on the species or stock, before developing into smolts. Smolts travel downstream from the river to the ocean and undergo a series of physiological changes that adapts them to life in salt water.
Once in the ocean, they spend up to five years feeding on the bounty of the sea before returning to freshwater to spawn. During their earlier developmental stages, salmon imprint on their natal habitat. This allows spawners to return to the exact location they were born in. The journey home is arduous, and many do not survive.
After returning to where they were born, salmon spawn. Females are picky about where they spawn and which males they spawn with. The female creates a redd (salmon nest), by digging a pit in the gravel, depositing her eggs at the same time she mates with a male, then covering the eggs with more gravel. Redds provide a safe, stable environment that protects and nourishes the developing eggs with vital oxygen. After spawning, pacific salmon die and complete their lifecycle.
Salmon are large animals and are a keystone species to the river ecosystems in which they return because they introduce a large amount of biomass to rivers. Such a large return of biomass is the result of feeding on abundant food sources in the ocean, and as carcasses decompose, they fertilize the river water with nutrients.
These nutrients are taken up by plants and algae in the stream, which are the base of the river food web. Insects and crustaceans that feed on algae are in turn eaten by fish and birds. With the loss of salmon, the ecosystem has lost this supply of marine nutrients that historically supplemented the food web. The ecosystem has also lost the abundant supply of juvenile salmon that also play an important role as both predator and prey during their stay in freshwater.
Some salmon never go to the ocean, and live their entire lives in freshwater. The Columbia basin has abundant populations of kokanee, which are landlocked forms of sockeye salmon. Although kokanee play an important role in foodwebs now, they have not replaced the role that anadromous salmon once played, and cannot equal their biomass. The loss of anadromous salmon cuts the link that allows the abundance of the ocean to be carried upstream to the headwaters of the river.
Salmon recovery and obstacles
After the construction of Grand Coulee Dam in the US (circa 1940), the Columbia River was heavily developed upstream with more large dams built for the purposes of power generation and flood control. Because salmon were already extirpated, government and industry forgot that salmon were ever there, so dams were not built with fish passage facilities and salmon habitat was flooded or destroyed. Many of these dams are extremely tall and create long, slow moving reservoirs, which will make salmon migration and fish passage strategies difficult. In addition, the large reservoirs and operations of the dams have altered the natural flow, water temperature and river habitat features that salmon are adapted to spawn, migrate, and rear in as juveniles. The river is now a very different place than the environment salmon evolved in, and fish passage, coordinated habitat recovery as well as altered reservoir operations may be required to provide a suitable environment for salmon again.
Salmon are often referred to as having “stocks.” A stock of salmon is a population that is uniquely adapted to spawn in a certain stream, at a certain time of the year. Because salmon return to their natal environments with key timing, this reduces interbreeding and allows each stock to be uniquely adapted to the environment that they were born in. The unique stocks that used various parts of the Upper Columbia River have been lost, but the habitats have changed as well. Finding suitable donor stocks that can survive in today’s altered habitat is a critical consideration for reintroduction efforts.
Salmon restoration is complicated and requires 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. This step-wise approach first assesses the feasibility of reintroduction and constraints to salmon completing their lifecycle, then comes up with scientific studies to determine what is needed to be successful for reintroducing salmon. After this, a more permanent program of salmon restoration could be initiated including building fish passage facilities, hatcheries and designing long term monitoring and adaptive management programs. The Canadian Columbia River Inter-tribal Fisheries Commission is currently working to find the most suitable donor stocks and developing an experiment to reintroduce salmon to the Canadian portion of the Columbia River between Grand Coulee Dam and Hugh Keenleyside Dam, near Castlegar. This experiment will be designed to address key uncertainties that must be answered before any long-term restoration effort is attempted. 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.
How you can help
Salmon are resilient animals, and given the chance, they can come back in great numbers and safely pass dams. New technologies and scientific understanding of salmon have helped recover salmon stocks in areas that were on the brink of extinction, and salmon have been reintroduced to, and flourished in areas where they have been lost for decades. A success story is on the Okanagan system, where restoration efforts and dam passage improvements for sockeye salmon have helped the population rebound over a hundred fold in recent years. If salmon were to be restored in the Upper Columbia River, they would use the same migration route as these sockeye, above nine currently-passable dams, and only have to pass an additional two dams to reach Canadian waters.
No restoration project has ever been attempted on a habitat as large or as altered as the Upper Columbia River, and this is a process that will require time and the hard work, devotion and passion of many people. The Columbia Basin produces almost half of the electricity generated in British Columbia because of its big dams, and even more electricity is generated in the US on dams that block salmon passage. Most of the key dams are federally (US Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation) or provincially (BC Hydro or Columbia Power Corporation, BC crown corporations) owned. None of the profits from the electricity generated at these dams are directed towards recovering salmon above these dams and the US and Canadian governments are currently not cooperating on this issue at the state, provincial or federal level.
It is possible to have both salmon and a clean, renewable source of power that comes from our rivers. Restoration of salmon would have clear economic, cultural and spiritual benefits for indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, both within and outside of the basin. You can help return salmon to these waters. Contribute to a local water stewardship group devoted to restoring habitat in the Columbia Basin so that salmon will have a healthy home when they return. Be vocal about your wish to see salmon back in the Upper Columbia River. Contact your local MP, MLA and local government representatives, and spread the word to your family and friends.
Be sure to visit this website regularly or attend the Columbia Salmon Festival for more information on how you can contact your local political representatives on this matter
Current and past CCRIFC initiatives
Scientific investigation of salmon restoration
Restoring salmon once they have been lost is challenging, but it can be done with the proper technology, effort and strategy. The Columbia River has changed dramatically, and when salmon return to the Canadian Columbia River Basin, they will find an environment that is radically different than the one in which they evolved. In order to be successful, the most logical approach is to scientifically investigate the key uncertainties we have about how this new environment affects salmon.
CCRIFC is actively involved in scientific investigation of the feasibility of restoring salmon to the Canadian Columbia River Basin. In 2006, CCRIFC, in partnership with other First Nations fisheries departments, commissioned a study on the feasibility, impacts and benefits of restoring anadromous salmon to the Canadian Columbia River Basin. The material from this study, along with earlier investigations, were key in informing the most recent high level concepts for investigating salmon restoration, developed communally among Fisheries departments from all three First Nations in Canada and 15 US Tribes of the Columbia River Basin. These concepts, along with a thorough background and justification for restoration, are presented in the Joint Columbia Basin Tribes and First Nations Paper on fish passage and reintroduction into the U.S. and Canadian upper Columbia Basin. Currently, CCRIFC is conducting some of the investigations that have been outlined in this paper.
The bottom of this page contains reports about Columbia salmon restoration which are publicly available to download, as well as a webinar outlining the some of the science behind Columbia Salmon restoration.
Education and outreach
Many people that live in the Canadian Columbia River Basin, and even fewer from outside the basin, are not aware that salmon were historically present. CCRIFC delivers educational programs, through our annual Columbia Salmon Festival and other means, to create awareness of the history and future of salmon in the basin. If you are interested in learning more about salmon restoration, or arranging for one of our staff to provide a presentation on aspects of salmon restoration or biology in the Columbia River Basin, please contact us. We are always willing to give seminars or classroom presentations for all audiences in the basin and surrounding area.
At the bottom of this page is a direct link to a webinar given on the history of salmon in the Columbia basin, as well as the challenges for restoration.
Support for First Nations’ political, legal and regulatory engagement
The Canadian Columbia River Basin was industrially developed intensively after salmon were lost, and the environmental, cultural and socio-economic impacts of this development occurred with salmon forgotten. This continues to be the case, and we must ensure that salmon habitat is improved, rather than being further impacted. CCRIFC provides support to the Ktunaxa and Secwepemc Nations in their engagement with regulatory agencies, industry and governments. There are many opportunities for reconciliation between First Nation governments and outside government agencies or other entities. Finding a common path to salmon restoration is one that CCRIFC promotes between the Secwepemc, Ktunaxa and other entities.
In the early 1990s, foundational work for CCRIFC included examining First Nations’ legal options for loss of the Columbia River fisheries. A report entitled ‘No Way Up’ was prepared by eminent natural resource and environmental lawyer Dr. Andrew Thompson assisted by Nancy Morgan and Christopher Lemon. That reported recommended a ‘negotiations’ approach supported by a litigation effort, if necessary. The proposed cause of action was breach of fiduciary duty against both the federal and provincial governments.
A follow-up report entitled “Loss of the Columbia River First Nations Fishery: Review of the Potential for Legal Action Against the Federal Government” was prepared in 1996 by Dr. Thompson assisted by Martin Palleson and Christopher Lemon. Among other things, this report recommended the development of “a legal strategy to make a formal claim to the International Joint Commission (IJC) for indemnification for fisheries losses and perhaps mitigation and restoration measures.”
Based on this advice, in 2001 CCRIFC began working on behalf of their member nations and communities with the non-profit “EAGLE” (Empowering Aboriginal Guardianship through Law and Education) to being preparing an application to the International Joint Commission based on the conditions in their 1941 approval of completion of the Grand Coulee Dam as a high head dam without provision for fish passage. We submitted our application to the IJC in April 2003. In October 2006, the IJC informed CCRIFC that they had declined our request and decided not to take any action with respect to their 1941 Order of Approval of the Grand Coulee dam.
In 2003 and 2004, CCRIFC also began work on a ‘Special Claim’ against the Government of Canada in relation to the loss of First Nations’ Columbia Basin salmon fisheries, based on infringement of aboriginal rights, breach of fiduciary duty and negligence. The Statement of Claim sought the following relief:
- a declaration that the plaintiffs have an aboriginal right to engage in the fishing practices in the Columbia River and its tributaries, north of the Canadian-U.S. border;
- a declaration that the defendant owes a fiduciary duty to the plaintiffs to protect and preserve their aboriginal right to engage in the fishing practices in the Columbia River and its tributaries, north of the Canadian-U.S. border;
- an order that the defendant mitigate the damage caused by the Dam to the plaintiffs’ aboriginal right to engage in the fishing practices;
- an order for damages and compensation for (i) breach of fiduciary duty; (ii) for negligence; (iii) for infringement of the plaintiffs’ aboriginal right to engage in the fishing practices.
The Statement of Claim prepared by CCRIFC on behalf of member nations and communities was never filed. A meeting with officials from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada convinced CCRIFC representatives that a ‘Special Claim’ process would take an inordinate and unacceptable length of time.
Reports for Download
Scientific and technical reports:
Golder 2017_Salmon habitat availability in Columbia River Transboundary Reach phase II
Warnock et al. 2016_Chinook donor stock assessment in Transboundary Reach
Golder 2016_Chinook Salmon habitat availability in Columbia River Transboundary Reach
Feasibility, Impacts and Benefits of Upper Columbia Salmon Restoration
Fish Passage and Reintroduction into the US and Canadian Upper Columbia Basin. A joint paper of the Columbia Basin Tribes & First Nations
Policy and legal reports:
No Way Up – First Nations’ Legal Options for the Loss of Columbia River Fisheries
Loss of the Columbia River First Nations Fishery Review of the Potential for Legal Action Against the Federal Government