The Northwest’s iconic salmon have faced many challenges. Starting in the 1800s, overfishing and canneries, mining, agriculture, and loss of habitat from logging decimated salmon numbers. In the mid-1800s, the Northwest Fish Commissioner at the time, Spencer Baird, predicted the demise of the salmon based on these factors.

In the mid-1900s, urban growth combined with a major era of dam construction on the Columbia, and later, Snake rivers contributed to dwindling salmon numbers and pushed some stocks near extinction. The dams helped bring the nation out of the Depression, brought light and prosperity to the Northwest’s rural communities and powered the aluminum, plane and war ship production that helped the United States win World War Two. However, the salmon and tribal cultures in particular paid a high price.

But times are changing. Today, there are more salmon in the Columbia River than at any time since the first lower Columbia mainstem dam was built at Bonneville in 1938. Many of these are hatchery fish, but wild populations are trending upward, too.

The last decade, especially, has produced strong—at times even record-setting—salmon returns. Such abundance is primarily the result of good ocean conditions. Changes in how the dams are operated, installation of new technologies at the dams to facilitate fish passage, improvements in hatchery practices and a habitat restoration effort for salmon that is the largest and most expensive wildlife program in the nation and likely, the world, are helping, too.

Seattle cannery workers unload salmon from barges in this photo from around 1900. Courtesy of The Museum of History and Industry.

Collaboration among federal and state agency leaders, tribes and other river users has helped boost the number of salmon that are successfully navigating past the dams on their journey downriver to the ocean, and on their return trip back to their native Northwest rivers and streams. Northwest citizens also are doing their part, investing hundreds of millions of dollars every year through their electric bills toward salmon restoration efforts.

These efforts are paying dividends in improving the prospects for many salmon species, including those still listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Take a look at what NOAA Fisheries has to say about the success of the Snake River Fall Chinook:  Snake River Fall Chinook by the Numbers 

Safer Passage for Young Salmon

Salmon Survival RateYoung salmon are surviving at the eight large federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers at levels generally exceeding the rigorous survival “performance standards” set at each dam. NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency responsible for salmon protection, says these survival levels are akin to juvenile survival rates in free-flowing tributaries and rivers with no dams.

Survival Rates at Dams are High

salmon passage survival rate

By the Numbers: Adult Salmon Setting Records

  • In 2015, over 2.3 million adult salmon and steelhead passed Bonneville Dam, only surpassed in 2014 with 2.5 million adults returning, which set a new modern-day record.  Of the fish returning in 2015, the spring, summer, and fall chinook were record or near-record runs.
  • The total 2015 count of Snake River fall chinook passing Lower Granite dam, the furthest in-river of the four lower Snake projects, was nearly 60,000, the second largest run in nearly 7 decades (prior record in 2014).
  • For Snake River fall Chinook specifically, returns of natural origin fish (versus hatchery fish) are increasing. In 2015, the adults returning above Lower Granite laid 9,345 redds (gravel nests), setting a new modern-day record.
  • Snake River sockeye, on the brink of extinction in the 1990s, have been rebuilding. In 2014, more than 2,700 successfully passed the eight mainstem dams on the journey to their spawning grounds—as compared to 1992, when only a single sockeye (known as “Lonesome Larry”) survived the trip. While warm river temperatures in 2015 were detrimental to the run at large, this was a merely a set-back from ever-improving sockeye returns.

  • Snake River Sockeye
  • Snake River Fall Chinook
  • Mid-Columbia Steelead


nwrpHow Are The Salmon Doing?