- Northwest salmon fisheries are in trouble, impacted by warming oceans and overdeveloped, dammed and silted spawning rivers and streams.
- Pre-contact indigenous groups in the region once organized their societies around sustainable fishing tribal agreements that worked. More recently, under past presidential administrations, Canadian, US and tribal authorities came together to save the declining salmon fisheries.
- Especially successful have been federally funded local, state and tribal programs, administered by NOAA, that protect and restore Northwest spawning streams — an investment in habitat and healthy local economies.
- Trump’s 2018 budget would cut all those programs, though for now Congress has restored them. However, politicians and regulators are concerned that Trump’s abandonment of Northwest fisheries and local economies will persist through his administration.
LAX KWALAAMS, British Colombia: Four years ago, Malcolm Sampson says, the ocean changed in a way that terrified him. Now in his 60s, Sampson, an ethnic-Tsimshian and member of the Lax Kwalaams First Nation, had spent his entire life hunting salmon in the open ocean and torturous passages of Canada’s North Coast, just south of the Alaska border.
But he had never seen anything like that: “The water went warm,” he said, nodding down at the blue-gray waves lapping at his boat, anchored about a mile offshore. In the distance, we could see the forbidding heights of British Columbia’s coastal range poking through the haze. Sampson was dour. “We pulled the sockeye out of the gill nets still alive, and they were already rotting,” he said. Algae bloomed on the water’s surface, pushing the surviving salmon far out to sea. Throughout the fishery, he said, the harvest collapsed.
By the time colder seas returned in 2017, the years of bad catches had eviscerated Lax Kwalaams’ commercial fishing fleet. When Sampson took off this morning from the small reserve town, he left a marina full of fishing boats bobbing, but half-abandoned, in their docks, their captains having given up.
“You just can’t make money at it anymore,” Sampson said, shaking his head.
He lives in Lax Kwalaams, an indigenous reserve village of about 600, largely members of the nine tribes of the Tsimshian, one of the many British Columbia peoples who live — in fact, whose entire cosmology is based — on the region’s great flows of salmon. Even with the return of cooler waters, 2017 has still been a bad year for salmon, which, in a region where a large proportion of the population still lives off the fish they catch, meant stress was starting to permeate people’s lives throughout the watershed.
The salmon Sampson catches largely come from the mouth of the nearby Skeena River, one of the world’s longest remaining un-dammed rivers, and Canada’s second most important salmon stream. This summer, numbers of sockeye, a notoriously heat-sensitive fish, were down so low that the upriver First Nations banned their sockeye fishing. The Canadian government closed the coastal sockeye fishery, too — not that that stopped people.
This day in July, a young Lax Kwalaams fisherman, the son of a clan chief, had been stopped by the Department of Fisheries with dozens of illegal sockeye in his boat, which belonged to his dad and was now impounded. “It would be tens of thousands to get it out now,” said Donny Wesley, Sampson’s brother-in-law. “Might as well give it up for gone.”
The two men sat, boats touching for an offshore tête-à-tête, there being nothing to catch anyway. They talked about the good years and the long abuse of the fishery; the numbers falling since they were boys. Sampson asserted that the fishery would not last three more years.
Onshore and through the upland valleys, I had heard many variations on this conversation, driven by the decline. People cursed the low numbers; they blamed neighbors who, they said, took too much. The First Nation bands blamed the commercial fishers; little commercial operators like Sampson and Wesley blamed the huge trawlers; big commercial operators blamed the bands. And everyone blamed the Americans for catching all “our” fish, as the salmon swam from one country to the other.
Now things are on track to get even worse for the North Coast fishery, thanks to one factor no one pointed to this day: the administration change in Washington D.C., with its impacts rippling even here, on the far side of North America, where Sampson’s boat bobbed not far from the continental shelf.
The Pacific salmon found either side of two US-Canadian borders — one between Canada and the Lower 48, and the other between Canada and Alaska — represent a huge binational resource. And in the past, the governments of both countries had worked together to protect that shared fishery, signing a groundbreaking treaty in 1998 and creating the Pacific Salmon Commission, a bilateral management authority headquartered in Vancouver, to make sure both sides got what they needed and that the salmon did not disappear.
For 20 years the commission kept the peace between fishermen, people like Sampson working on both sides of the borders, trying to conserve a dwindling resource as the ocean grew ever more stressed.
But now, as representatives of both governments meet to renew the historic management and conservation treaty that had ended decades of “fishing wars,” there are signs that Washington is withdrawing from the responsible management role carved out under three administrations. The Trump administration’s 2018 budget (“A New Foundation for American Greatness”), if approved by Congress, will dramatically cut funding to NOAA, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Alongside the better-known cuts to climate change research, Trump wants to reduce allocations to NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), eliminating two programs specifically targeted to protect vital salmon habitat, including one expressly dedicated to curbing the salmon’s historic decline.
Though these proposed cuts, as with so much of Trump’s agenda, seem unlikely to be approved by Congress for now, the president’s budget is a worrying indicator of the administration’s priorities and intent. As Pacific salmon stocks risk collapse, the US president has called for fiscal austerity and a withdrawal of economic support to Northwest communities in a time of great need — the very real existential threat to salmon is also a threat to predators, both animal and human, who depend on the fish for survival.
Living within nature’s laws
Salmon, and good salmon management, rest atop a couple of apolitical paradoxes. These great fish are extremely hardy seafarers, migrating across thousands of miles of ocean in their lifetimes. But they are also exceedingly vulnerable, especially when traveling inland: at the start and end of their lives they must navigate a bewildering network of tiny tributaries that feed the Pacific Northwest’s great rivers.
Salmon are rugged, agile carnivores as adults, but, much like humans, are fragile when young, needing precise, nurturing conditions to survive. A salmon that leaves, say, the Skeena watershed as a fry will cross many jurisdictional boundaries, and a great ocean, before returning to the stream where it was born to spawn. Via this complex lifecycle, the salmon of the past have fed many mouths, along with US, Canadian and Tribal communities, which all depend on the reliable yearly return of the fish.
This mix of sprawling international migration and hyperlocal maturation make multilateral salmon management both a nightmare and a necessity.
That was true even before Europeans arrived. The pre-contact Tsimshian and their neighbors built an entire social system with the purpose of managing this crucial fishery — establishing a fantastically complicated network of overlapping rights to the salmon run, administered by elected chiefs from noble families put in place by the “feast hall,” a sort of parliament by roving dinner party which oversaw fishing territories. At the feasts, the clan chiefs assigned responsibilities for managing and protecting territories; they negotiated resource disputes; sometimes they stripped rights from chiefs who were abusing their power.
US and Canadian authorities abolished this successful and sustainable “potlatch” system at the end of the 19th century, and for much of the 20th the state of binational salmon policy could best be described as “every man for himself.”
Or as the old hands of that era remember it: “fishing wars.”
“There was a dysfunctional free-for-all about who was catching what,” said Peter Dygert, who works with the NMFS Sustainable Fisheries division, and was involved in past and current treaty negotiations. “Lack of coordination amongst the governments resulted in a total free-for-all that was costing both countries fish.”
Complicating treaty negotiations were the two shared international borders — between Alaska and Washington State — and the salmon that swam freely across those borders in both directions. The salmon of the Columbia River, one of the most important US salmon streams, largely head north toward Vancouver Island and Canadian waters. The salmon of British Colombia’s Skeena go north to Alaska.
And for most of the 20th century, on both sides of both lines, angry fishermen were convinced the other side was stealing “their” fish. After a few high-profile incidents — notably, in 1997, a three-day blockade of an Alaska Highways ferry by Prince Rupert fishermen in protest at a Canadian court order — the two governments, at last, came together to negotiate a permanent solution.
In 1998, the two countries signed the Pacific Salmon Treaty (PST), which went into effect the following year. That treaty, renewed each decade since, has held for 20 years, and been overseen by the Pacific Salmon Commission, a bilateral group that helps both countries redress grievances and meet their conservation and economic goals.
The treaty rests on an intricate system of shared measurement and management. Both sides track and forecast their salmon populations by means of coded wires embedded in the skulls of select fish; population estimates drive forecasts, which drive quotas, which aim to give both sides a fair share of their own salmon.
Watching over a withering harvest
For nearly 30 years, Dygert said, the US and Canada have maintained a good working relationship where both sides understand each other’s needs and priorities. In fact, the PST has been a treaty that gets more subtle and stronger with time. For 20 years, it has largely kept disputes between the two nations’ fishermen at the level of grumbles.
But the shadow of salmon decline hovers over the current talks, and over fishery policy in general. That, and the acute question of what Washington D.C. is going to do next. Like many bureaucrats in the current unstable political climate, Dygert spoke carefully, weighing his words in the manner of a man who suspects they may be used against him. But the picture he painted was clear. Salmon populations cycle; there are years of good runs and bad. But the general trend-line of the stocks is down.
“The highs are less high then they used to be, lows are lower than they used to be,” Dygert said. “There’s a perception of variable, but nonetheless declining, status. The objective of the agreement was to rebuild stocks to the point where there was no longer a conservation concern, and to meet conservation objectives.” He paused. The treaty commits each side to monitoring and conserving its own — which is also to say, the other’s – salmon. “We continue to struggle to make progress on that front.”
The decline has been going on for a long time. The 1980s and 1990s saw stocks plummet in the rivers of the Rockies and Cascades. In 1991, the year that unrest broke out in Prince Rupert, the Snake River sockeye — once the basis of entire indigenous civilizations — was listed as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act; the following year the Snake’s Chinook were listed as Threatened. Then, a grim litany of listings: 1994, Sacramento River Chinook, Threatened; 1997, steelhead stocks from the Columbia to California, Threatened; 1998, steelhead of Southern California, Endangered. In 1999, the year the US and Canada signed the PST, according to a Commerce Department report:
Upper Columbia River spring-run Chinook are listed as Endangered. Hood Canal summer-run chum, Ozette Lake sockeye, Puget Sound Chinook, Lower Columbia River Chinook, Columbia River chum, Upper Willamette River Chinook, Upper Willamette River steelhead, Middle Columbia River steelhead, California Coastal Chinook, and Central Valley spring-run Chinook are listed as Threatened.
No one knows quite why it is happening — it’s likely a confluence of causes. Dygert blames long-term development trends in the region, particularly a building boom along much of the riverine Pacific Coast, from the Sacramento Delta through western Washington, Vancouver and beyond. Salmon, he said, need remote, cold, clear water to lay their eggs, and that is getting harder and harder to come by.
The West’s rivers are also largely dammed, and the region’s water management boards referee perpetual fights for water between agriculture, industry and developers — water removed from once-important salmon streams.
The arrival of the Blob
All the while, in the background, of course, the ocean was changing. In 2008, the federal government closed fisheries from northern Oregon to the Mexican border, after Sacramento River salmon stocks collapsed — the biggest closure since the federal government started regulating fisheries. A regional NMFS administrator told the New York Times it was “the largest collapse of salmon stocks in 40 years.”
Then came “the Blob.” In 2013, a vast front of warm water spread south from the Gulf of Alaska, then crept throughout 2014 down to the upper US West Coast. The result was an unprecedented, for the region, multiyear mass of warm ocean water thousands of miles across, with temperatures in places up to 5.5 degrees Celsius (10 degrees Fahrenheit) above average. Usually, fall storms break up such waters, forcing upwellings of cold water from below, which salmon (along with the cold-water, hard-shelled creatures they eat) need to survive.
But for years the winds didn’t come and the Blob remained, leading to the sickeningly warm waters and death of salmon that Sampson experienced in British Columbia. “There’s nothing like it in our historical record,” Chelle Gentemann, a physical geographer at Earth and Space Research in Seattle, told National Geographic. Her team’s study created incredible satellite pictures of the Blob, and the fish-killing algal bloom thousands of miles long it incubated.
The unprecedented Blob was accompanied by other bizarre indicators. By 2014, fishermen were catching warm-water thresher sharks and sunfish off the Alaska coast; brown boobies from Central America were appearing in California. Tropical plankton spread through the North Pacific. By 2015, 2,460 starving sea lion pups had washed up stranded on California beaches, 20 times the usual number. Thousands of hungry Cassin’s auklets dropped dead on beaches, the photos of the birds’ bodies recalling some post-conflict mass grave.
More alarming for governments was the economic cost. In 2015, the West Coast sardine fishery fell to 10 percent of what it had been in 2007, spreading starvation through the food web, and prompting the NMFS to close that fishery too. This was also bad news for the salmon, which eat sardines — salmon populations died off all summer along the Columbia River and its tributaries. In 2015, only 250,000 came back up the Columbia from an expected return of twice that.
This mirrored trouble further north. Just across the Washington-British Columbia border, where wild catches had fallen by nearly 80 percent since 1990 — a decline hidden within a surge in farmed salmon — the Fraser River, Canada’s most important salmon river, registered its worst return in 120 years; less than a million sockeye salmon came back up a river that once saw tens of millions, leading the Canadian government to close the sockeye fishery entirely.
A University of British Colombia (UBC) study brought even more bad news: it forecast that the geographic range of the Canadian province’s commercial fish would shift 10 to 18 kilometers (6.2 to 11.1 miles) north per decade, due to human caused climate change, with serious consequences for southern British Columbia fisheries and presumably continental US fisheries as well.
Killing fisheries with policy
Salmon was one of the last things the Obama administration regulated before the handover to Trump. On January 18, two days before the inauguration, the feds declared a state of emergency for Alaska’s pink salmon. Republican Governor Bill Walker had been appealing for a disaster declaration throughout 2016, as harvests in some of Alaska’s richest fisheries fell by 80 percent.
Roughly two months later, the Trump administration released its “skinny” budget with the redoubtable title “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again.” The Alaska Dispatch-News, a paper eminently concerned with commercial fisheries, called the Trump budget a potential “body blow” to West Coast fishing.
There are three major areas of concern in the Trump budget when it comes to the long-term viability of Pacific Coast salmon. First are the cuts to the National Marine Fisheries Service — $43 million, below 2017 levels. This may not sound like much, out of a budget of some $970 million. But it comes as a sharp check on the Obama-era trend, which saw the NMFS expanding. For the last several years, the agency’s budget went up about $20 million annually. Importantly, in 2017, the bulk of the money NMFS asked for went to “Protected Resources Science and Management” and “Fisheries Science and Management” — agenda items with the urgent purpose of boosting commercial fish stocks in a warming world, amid declining harvests.
The Trump cuts largely target enforcement and precisely that sort of research; $5 million, the Alaska Dispatch-News reports, would be cut “from management and enforcement of US catch share programs, such as halibut, sablefish and Bering Sea crab.” The Trump budget also would entirely defund two NOAA programs that work directly to recover salmon runs.
“We looked at the budget process through the eyes of the people who were actually paying the bills,” said Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s Office of Management and Budget director. If so, this is a telling statement about taxpayers’ priorities and of their unwillingness to help neighbors in need.
The Pacific Salmon Coastal Recovery Fund (PCSRF) was set up in 2000, the year after the US and Canada signed the Pacific Salmon Treaty, literally to prevent the disappearance of West Coast salmon. “Today, 28 species face extinction,” a 2016 PCSRF report to Congress reads. “This program is essential to preventing the extinction of threatened and endangered salmon populations and, in many cases, has contributed to stabilizing at-risk populations and has set the stage for their recovery.”
PCSRF addresses the earlier mentioned paradoxes of salmon management, recognizing that ocean salmon can’t thrive if stream habitat isn’t preserved. By slating federal funds for county, state and tribal government salmon programs, the PCSRF targets money for precisely the sort of hyperlocal tributary protections and restorations needed to secure robust salmon populations out in the open ocean.
The fund currently hands out an average of $76 million per year. According to NMFS, 80 percent of that gets spent in the same county that asked for it; nearly all of it is spent in-state. For example, in 2010, the fund paid for Washington State and the Skokomish tribe to remove dikes and levees to restore the natural tidal hydrology of the Skokomish Estuary, an important habitat for the salmon that will swim out of Puget Sound and into Canada. It also paid for the Alaska Cost Share Program, which stabilizes stream banks and fights erosion to keep waters clear at 130 salmon sites in Alaska, with another 100 sites planned for the next three years — though that depends on Trump and Congress.
The results for Alaska have been dramatic. According to NOAA, since 2000, PSCRF-funded programs have restored 879,000 acres (355,700 hectares) of spawning and rearing habitat and opened up more than 5,300 miles (8,530 kilometers) of previously inaccessible streams. This is not “tree hugging” environmentalism, experts point out; rather, it is good economic policy.
The Trump budget didn’t cut all salmon management funding. The administration left intact the specific line item devoted to salmon management mandated by the Pacific Salmon Treaty. “That money is pretty steady, people don’t often go after it,” said Jeff Watters, who handles government relations for the Ocean Conservancy, an NGO. But while that line item covers existing management programs,
Watters noted, PCSRF grants (like many of the NOAA grant programs Trump wants cut) work to ensure a thriving fishery in the future. Since habitat loss is one of the main reasons salmon stocks are collapsing, wildlife managers see this work as crucial to bringing populations back.
“You can take a stream that’s not a good stream for salmon,” Watters explained, “and use that PCSRF money to make it so the salmon can breed in it. And maybe the salmon have no interest in it today.” But in the future, it creates a place that fish populations can regroup. Without PCSRF, there are far fewer such places. This is not, of course, only a good policy for salmon, or even humans that eat them — it also means jobs, as dollars, like salmon, do not stay in one place.
An Ecotrust study on the economic impacts of watershed restoration found that each $1 million spent on stream habitat protection and restoration saw $1.86 million entering the local economy, along with 15 stable jobs. In one state example, the study found that in Oregon, stream restoration projects had generated as much as $977 million between 2001 and 2010. The study also found it had generated 6,400 jobs — more than the Keystone XL pipeline which Trump has defended so staunchly.
Over the last 10 years, the PCSRF has put a lot of money directly into the coffers of state fisheries and wildlife management officials — $197 million in Alaska; $159 million in Oregon; $138 million in California; a whopping $337 million in Washington. Under the new 2018 budget, the funding for these programs, and all the small construction projects they’ve seeded, dries up entirely.
What does this mean in the real world? It’s hard to say. Those who defend the Trump budget seem to be operating in a space reserved for magical thinking, where proposed austerities will save taxpayers dollars without any dark outcomes in the real world. Add to the unknowns: will Congress ultimately approve Trump’s proposed 2018 cuts, or just part of them? And what will they do in 2019, or 2020? People speculate in hushed, fearful tones about things that may or may not come to pass — or may come to pass in mutated form — in a political environment with no clear precedent.
Real World vs. Trump World
It should come as little surprise that neither US or Canadian politicians or regulators are eager to speculate on what the 2018 management or conservation environment is going to look like. Repeated calls to the Canadian Department of Fisheries and the office of Alaska’s Sen. Lisa Murkowski went unreturned; the US National Marine Fisheries Service was more forthcoming, but officials there understandably declined to discuss Trump’s budget or its impacts.
The US Department of Commerce, which overseas NOAA and the NMFS, sent the following boilerplate statement, making ambiguous lemonade out of imaginary lemons:
The long-term sustainability of American fishing stocks and the jobs that rely on them are of the utmost concern to Secretary [Wilbur] Ross. NOAA will continue its Federal commitment to advancing Pacific salmon and steelhead recovery and conservation, and Tribal treaty fishing rights within its budget. Just last month, NOAA awarded millions in grant funding allocated to study as well as protect American fisheries and other vital marine resources.
If this administration statement turns out to be truthful, it will be, in large measure, because the House and Senate have rejected Trump’s NOAA cuts. Both the House and Senate bill fund NOAA at higher levels than Trump (though the Senate is more generous than the House). Both bodies left the PCSRF with $65 million, and restored other grant programs that Trump had redlined.
Watters, the Ocean Conservancy political analyst, explained Congress’ opposition to Trump this way: Because these grant programs put money into local economies, people immediately notice when they’re taken away and complain. He pointed to the popular Sea Grant program as an example; its funding was cut in the Trump budget, but restored by Congress because, for one thing, the program had been responsible for the creation of Florida’s sponge-fishing industry.
“You threaten to take [popular local programs] away, people on Capitol Hill hear from their constituents about that,” said Watters.
Still, he worries about the next budget: the money may be restored this time, but this is only the Trump administration’s first year: “Congress may add the money back this time, [but] the administration has shown that it is not a fan of the salmon funding, and it can be expected they will try to zero out that funding again in the future. The outcome could be different next year.”
Also, the very thing that makes these grant programs so effective — that they foster coordination among a lot of state and local entities — makes them vulnerable. First, because the money is used for cooperative efforts, no single high-up official or agency gets to claim credit. And second, because these programs rely on project-specific work with external partners — in counties, municipalities or tribes — there are no direct federal jobs that disappear when you cut them. Losses are only felt much later, when the fish go away and local economies fail; by then, several election cycles have come and gone.
“The narrative they try to tell is that ‘we’re trimming the fat,’” Watters said of the Trump budget. “But the cuts that are happening cut the bone and leave the fat. They’re cutting the most efficient and effective use of dollars that are out there, to get to their goals.”
Presidential budgets, as pundits were fond of pointing out when the “skinny budget” was first rolled out in March, are wish lists — they are statements of executive values and priorities. Whether the budget passes or not, the writing is on the wall: Washington D.C. will not likely be providing support for the Northwest fisheries crisis — bad news for our nation, as well as for Canada and the First Nations.
As US and Canadian members of the Pacific Salmon Commission meet in Portland over the next few months to hammer out the newest iteration of the Pacific Salmon Treaty, up in British Columbia Malcolm Sampson has a different sort of long-term resource management plan. He has set up a little grocery store in the front room of his house. Soon, he says, the salmon will be gone; the people of Lax Kwalaams will complete the transition from a fisheries-based economy to seeking low-paying wage jobs in the depressed economy of neighboring Prince Rupert.
When they can’t catch food, they’ll have to buy it. He smiles. What was once his living room is now packed with neat stacks of canned goods. In the end, the fish will come to him.
SAUL ELBEIN’s work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and The Texas Observer and on This American Life. This story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
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