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.

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

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.

The Present and the Future

The last decade has produced strong—at times even record-setting—salmon returns. It has also seen salmon runs trend downward in the later part of the decade due to poor ocean conditions. However, with changes in how the dams are operated, installation of new technologies at the dams to facilitate fish passage, improvements in hatchery practices, and major habitat restoration, they have been able to stay resilient.

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 utility bills that goes directly towards salmon recovery.

By the Numbers: Adult Salmon Set Records in the Last Decade

  • 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.

Want To Know More About Salmon Recovery?

History of Salmon Recovery