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Historical Distribution and Abundance of Columbia River Steelhead & Salmon

Category: Newsletter Articles | Posted by: Jonathan | 11/10/10 | Comments: 0

Summary: Bill McMillan was awarded a $5,000 grant from the Wild Steelhead Coalition (WSC) in early 2010 to continue research and develop an accurate historical baseline of what steelhead/salmon numbers and distribution were in the Columbia Basin prior to Euro-American contact. Funds for the WSC grant were secured from Patagonia's World Trout Grant program.

By Bill McMillan ,  (Nov. 2010)

Thanks to the Patagonia World Trout funding provided through the Wild Steelhead Coalition, this project continues to move forward.

The primary Columbia project work over the past three years has been accessing historical books, reports, photographs, and art work that might help to explain what each corner of the Columbia basin once looked like, whether steelhead and salmon got there or not, and if they did what species and in what numbers. This is the great advantage of the internet: it provides the ability to access historical resources from distant libraries, institutions, and private collections and to quickly search lists and individual documents for a specific term – steelhead, salmon, fish, fishery, and etc. However, my rural location was a limitation in being able to bring in larger historical works due to my dial-up internet service. I had to rely on willing folks to mail larger documents as hard copies or put on CD.

This altered two months ago with a technological marvel, an AirCard, which now provides me broadband internet service as provided by Wild Fish Conservancy to exchange large documents with greater ease of communication. It has opened up the ability to freely examine a much greater range of history resources. While this has somewhat set back the timing of the Columbia project timeline for planned publication of information because of adding yet more to the database, the project outcome will be the better for it related to some rather important finds as a result.

One of the blanks in information has been how ocean productivity changes may have fit into the coastwide decline of wild steelhead and salmon in the Lower 48 over the past 150 years. A glimpse into this was recently found in a pioneer account of what the ocean food base in the vicinity of Puget Sound and Georgia Strait was in the year 1853 and again early 1900’s. It sheds great light on the probability that smolt-to-adult survival was, by present standards, inconceivably high. The ocean was, in fact, a natural “feedlot” during more favorable conditions whose fertility would now seem an invention of science fiction. A linking account from 1866 confirms a great baitfish collapse had previously occurred in both Puget Sound and the 100 mile tidal reach of the lower Columbia. David Montgomery’s work has found accounts of fantastic baitfish numbers in Europe during Roman times. Only the very earliest accounts of those few people who first arrived as settlers, or were otherwise observers over longer periods of time than the early explorers, can provide these important pieces to the puzzle for explaining historical productivity. One has to go back very early to avoid the dilemma of the apt term “shifting baseline” as the perpetual limitation to be overcome for understanding how ecosystems once worked – and, therefore, how to begin to piece parts of them together again.

The Columbia basin historically accessed by anadromous fish was an enormous landscape of great eco-region complexity that made up the ecosystem whole. The remaining historical database from which to potentially reconstruct what it looked like is also large with sources tucked into obscure corners of bookstores, libraries, science buildings, and family attics. Some no longer exist. At some point one has to end the search and begin to publish, but it is a fine balance to try to ensure that one does not perpetuate previous inaccuracies that may continue to limit effective recovery strategies. At the same time, much of what has been found needs to be presented sooner than later.

The dilemma in this project is the sheer quantity of information and that much of it provides a very different perspective of both distribution of species and abundance than determined over the past 30 years since modern Columbia recovery planning began through the Northwest Power Planning Council’s inception in 1980-81. The end strategy is to publish a series of peer-reviewed papers, any one of which can entail a year of drafting and review edits. But each paper would only provide a part of the whole due to size limitations for peer-review publication. We are now focusing on a somewhat different strategy which would result in a large informational report beyond the size considered for peer-reviewed journals, but which would fit with previous large informational reports provided by NOAA Fisheries in the past. This strategy would allow us to have an initial working draft around the end of this year and a final version for internal and public use sometime in the first half of next year. This strategy would make available a large amount of historical Columbia basin information that could be used for recovery planning in the shortest amount of time. We can then target select components of that information for peer-reviewed journals thereafter as something outside the scope of the present project intended to best fulfill the Patagonia World Trout grant expectations. Thanks to this grant, with the larger report completion, it will provide a funding lever for subsequent publication work through varied sources.


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