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Will salmon ever come back to the Columbia?

For decades now salmon have been barred from their traditional Columbia River spawning grounds
In this June 1, 2011 file photo, water is released through the outlet tubes at Grand Coulee Dam, Wash. It is one of the dams blocking Pacific salmon from reaching the Upper Columbia River watershed. File photo

Seventh in a series on the Columbia River Treaty

Coyote had a full belly.

The infamous trickster had been leisurely meandering along the Columbia River, travelling upstream to visit the villages and communities along its shores. According to one of the Colville Confederated Tribes’ creation myths, some of the communities were less than generous with their supernatural guest.

“There’s a different story for each community Coyote visited during his journey,” Sinixt leader Michael Marchand told the Star.

“Some were stingy, and they didn’t give up their salmon or their wives for him. But the Arrow Lakes had every kind of wealth, so they were really generous with Coyote. They treated him right, so as a reward he gave them the best fishery in the world.”

But there’s a tragic turn to this particular story. Though salmon are a central aspect of Marchand’s culture and lifestyle, the fish can no longer successfully navigate past the series of dams created just before and following the signing of the Columbia River Treaty in 1964, and it’s been decades since they’ve reached the Kettle Falls area that the Colville Confederated Tribes currently calls home.

And as far as Marchand’s concerned, that’s a catastrophe.

“We’ve been grappling with this for decades, trying to return salmon up the Columbia River, and part of the problem is technical, part is money-related, and part is political. This has affected literally hundreds and hundreds of tribes and nations.”

Sixteen million fish a year, gone

It’s impossible to put a precise number on the number of sockeye, pink, chum, chinook and coho salmon currently being blockaded from their traditional spawning grounds by the dams, but one figure put forward by scientists stands out — 16 million fish a year.

This consequence wasn’t taken into consideration during the negotiations surrounding the CRT, and aboriginal groups weren’t included in the decision-making. Now that the treaty’s up for re-negotiation, First Nations groups would like to see salmon introduced to the conversation.

It’s one of their highest priorities.

One of the organizations devoted to salmon interests is the Canadian Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fisheries Commission, which has a stated aim of seeing Pacific salmon given access to the full Columbia River watershed. The Ktunaxa’s director on that commission is former federal Green candidate Bill Green, and this is a project he’s been working on for over two decades.

At first there was only one employee on the commission — him — but the organization now has 10 staff, with two full-timers specifically dedicated to the restoration of salmon. And emotions run high when discussing the subject.

“In terms of impact, the loss of salmon is right up there with residential schools,” Green told the Star, relating how the situation was described to him by Ktunaxa chair Kathryn Teneese.

“It’s that profound. It used to be a touchstone of their life. First Nations people would follow salmon up and down the Columbia harvesting. It was a hugely important part of their lives and culture, and the loss has been earth-shattering for the Ktunaxa and other First Nations.”

‘The big obstacle is the dams’

If a salmon attempts to make its way from the Pacific Ocean up into British Columbia, one of the biggest obstacles it will hit is the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington, which was built in 1942. Downstream of that are 10 other dams, and all of them are currently allowing fish through at a 97 to 98 per cent success rate, using fish ladders and other technology.

If salmon were to successfully get past Grand Coulee, the next big block would be the Hugh Keenleyside Dam in Castlegar. Beyond that, the determined fish could swim right up into the Kootenays, getting stuck at Bonnington Falls and Brilliant Dam, just shy of where they used to swim in the Slocan and Salmo Rivers.

Green attended a 2007 workshop convened in Spokane that brought together First Nations groups looking at the feasibility of re-introducing salmon north of Grand Coulee, then implementing technology to coax them the remainder of the way home.

“As a result of that workshop we came up with a game plan,” Green said.

That game plan primarily consists of “experimental re-introduction,” where they affix radio tags to donor stock salmon and track them via airplane to monitor their progress swimming upstream. This process is called telemetry, and they hope it will reveal other obstacles to the salmon’s progress that they can help ameliorate.

If they can successfully do this, theoretically the salmon should be free to swim past the border, bringing Canadian First Nations groups sustenance and repairing the environmental harmony they feel was lost along with the fish.

And this isn’t just a pipe dream — there are other First Nations groups who have successfully restored missing fish populations in Canada, including one in the Okanagan that saw sockeye salmon returned to Osoyoos and Skaha Lake.

‘We have a word for salmon, but we don’t have any salmon’

Thinking about salmon makes Kathryn Teenese sad.

“As of today, there are very few Ktunaxa people living who would have had direct knowledge of when there were salmon here, we only know through our oral histories,” she told the Star.

“We have a word for salmon, but don’t have any salmon. It doesn’t exist anymore, doesn’t exist in today’s world. We are now one of the few groups of indigenous people who don’t have some sort of connection to salmon, while salmon is a part of the lives of people across this province.”

According to her, the dams built as a result of the CRT “exacerbated an already challenging situation” for the salmon, but with the right technology she believes there’s a chance they could ultimately return to their Canadian homeland in the Upper Columbia watershed.

“We need to ensure we’re not just yelling for the sake of yelling. We need good information and viable solutions. We need to think about ‘how are we going to address this in terms of what we lost?’”

And there’s someone to blame.

“The loss of salmon didn’t just happen. It was caused by human activity.”

‘Who is speaking for the fish?’

Sinixt elder Marilyn James is feeling disillusioned about the prospects of returning salmon to the Columbia, and she doesn’t believe the government is factoring fish into their long-term decision-making.

“Who is speaking for the fish?” she asked the Star.

“Not the government, not the Department of Fisheries, not the people getting paid to ignore the problem. They’re making decisions based on the Treaty, and not their charges — the fish.”

And beyond their limited access, she has larger scale concerns in mind: pollution, radioactive waste and the effect of human habitation on the salmon coming in from the Pacific Ocean.

James said her community hasn’t been given a place at the bargaining table, most keenly illustrated by the government declaring them extinct in Canada shortly before the Columbia River Treaty was signed.

“If they recognized the Sinixt, they’d have to mitigate the losses on the Columbia River system and that would be millions and millions of dollars.”

Her opinion: “This is not an Indian problem. It’s a human problem.”

The Star’s exploration of salmon issues will continue in Part 8 of our Columbia River Treaty series.