Depending on how one defines “commercial fishing,” its history on the Columbia River is as ancient as the culture of the people who first lived along its shores and caught its fish, or as comparatively recent as the first encounters between Indian tribes and the European and Euro-American fur traders and explorers. Salmon, steelhead and other fish have cultural value to the tribes but also always have been trade commodities on the Columbia.

Just over 30 years after the Columbia River was discovered by Robert Gray in 1792, the Hudson’s Bay Company began to explore the possibility of commercial trade for salmon. Early explorers, including Robert Gray and Lewis and Clark, had traded with Columbia River Basin Indian tribes for salmon in order to supplement their diet. The Hudson's Bay Company purchased salmon from the native fishermen for salting in barrels and shipment to their other trading posts and to Hawaii.

In 1830, Capt. John Dominis of Boston acquired, salted, and packed 53 barrels of salmon and shipped them home in an attempt to establish a salmon export business. There were problems, though. The salted fish stank after the long sea journey to Boston, and on top of that, Boston harbor officials assessed an import tax because they considered the Columbia River part of a foreign country, namely the hated Great Britain (at the time, the United States and Great Britain had a policy of joint occupancy of the Northwest, but apparently that didn’t matter to the Boston harbormasters). Nevertheless, the fish sold for $742 — a decent sum, but not enough to persuade the captain to try again.

Preservation of salted fish was problematic. Spoilage occurred because of the difficulties in obtaining adequate salt supplies and in preventing barrels from leaking during the long voyage home. Nonetheless, it was exported in barrels and purchased for resale. In 1846, an American Navy Lieutenant, Neil Howison, visited Fort Vancouver and Oregon City and reported, regarding salmon: “Seven or eight hundred barrels are annually exported: they retail at Oahu for ten dollars a barrel, but I do not believe they are so highly appreciated anywhere as in Oregon, where they may be considered their staple article of food.”

In 1834, Nathaniel Wyeth, also from Boston, tried to start a salmon-packing business, but competition from the Hudson's Bay Company proved too strong and his business failed. With steady immigration into the Columbia Basin from the 1840s on, there were repeated attempts to develop a salmon industry. After America and Great Britain established the border at the 49th Parallel, in 1846, the Hudson’s Bay Company consolidated its operations in Canada. By the 1850s, with the continued influx of population, including many settlers who had fishing experience in New England and northern Europe, salmon fishing was an industry on the Sacramento River, and entrepreneurs soon ventured into the Columbia Basin to give it a try.

At this time, the mid-1800s, Columbia River salmon runs likely were as abundant, or at least as unaffected by humans, as they ever would be. Not only was the population of immigrants from Europe and America low, but the once-dense Indian population of the lower Columbia region, which relied on salmon as a primary food, nearly had been wiped out by epidemics.

In 1846, James Birnie retired from the Hudson’s Bay Company and opened a trading post on the lower Columbia at Cathlamet. By 1853 he was salting and packing fish that he purchased from Indians, and he also employed non-Indian fishers and supplied them with nets. By 1861 commercial fishing was an industry on the lower Columbia. Two other entrepreneurs, H.N. Nice and Jotham Reed were fishing with a net 50 fathoms long and three fathoms deep and salting the catch at Oak Point, which is about 60 miles downriver from Portland.

The commercial fishing industry grew rapidly after the development of the salmon canning process on the Columbia. In 1866, the year the first of many canneries began operating on the Columbia, there were two commercial fishing boats on the river. The number jumped to 100 by 1872, 250 by 1874, 500 in 1878 and 1,200 in 1881.

Fishermen from the eastern seaboard of the United States and immigrant fishermen from Europe and Canada established fishing communities in the lower Columbia River. Ethnic groups from Europe included fishermen from Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland, Great Britain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, and the Dalmatian Coast. Many were familiar with fishing gear such as fish traps, seines, hook and line, set nets, and drift gillnets, and adapted them for use on the Columbia.

Other ethnic groups were brought in by salmon canners anxious to hire cheap labor to process the fish. George Hume, a member of the family that brought salmon canning to the Columbia, hired the first Chinese workers for his cannery in 1872. Other canners soon did the same, using a contract labor system that was ripe for abuse. An unwritten rule of the time was that the Chinese were not to be allowed to fish on the Columbia, due to a fear of a reduction in fish prices. Eventually the racist policies of the nation, which passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, for example, slowed the flow of workers from China. Other ethnic groups, including Japanese, Filipinos, Koreans, and Mexicans supplied needed labor, and the packers also began hiring women, frequently the wives of fishermen, to process the pack. Meanwhile, the Indian population along the lower Columbia, which was large at the time of Lewis and Clark, declined steadily as the result of disease. Some of those who remained continued to fish, and most owned drift rights like the other fishers. A few Indian families retain those drift rights and continue to fish to this day, but most of the Indian fishing occurs in the treaty-secured area between Bonneville and McNary dams.

With the increase of non-Indian fishers came competition, particularly among the canneries. Inevitably, the canners joined forces to lower the prices paid for fish, and the fishers reacted with understandable indignation. In 1877 and again in 1880, 1883 and 1885, Columbia River gillnet fishermen organized strikes and acts of violence against cannery operators over the low prices paid for salmon. This led to the establishment of the Columbia River Fishermen’s Protective Union in 1879, which affiliated with the American Federation of Labor in 1886. The CRFPU successfully bargained for higher prices, which more than doubled between 1886 and 1888, from 55 cents per fish to $1.25 per fish.

Commercial fishing reached its sustained peak period in the Columbia River in the 1880s. In 1883 and 1884, the catch totaled more than 42 million pounds, and more than 620,000 cases of salmon were packed each year. At the beginning of the decade there were 35 canneries on the river; the number reached 39 in 1883 and again in 1886 and 1887. But by late in the decade salmon harvests and production at canneries began to decline. In 1890, for example, the total catch was 29.6 million pounds, the pack was 435,744 cases, and just 21 canneries remained in operation. In order to harvest as many fish as possible, early in the decade canneries provided both boats and nets to fishermen. The packers provided boats and nets to the early fishermen because they could not themselves afford to do so and because each packer wanted a fleet that was obligated to sell to them. Fishermen wanted to purchase their own boats and gear in order to be able to choose to whom they sold their fish. By the end of the 19th Century the practice of packers providing boats and gear had died out.

Commercial fishers also caught sturgeon, both white and green. White sturgeon have a higher commercial value. The commercial fishery for white sturgeon began in the Columbia in the early 1880s and reached its peak, 52 million pounds in 1892, at about the same time that the salmon harvest peaked. A technique known as the “gang line” was particularly efficient - and damaging - for sturgeon. A line with a series of hooks was placed along the bottom of the river, where sturgeon feed, in order to snag them by their bodies, as opposed to luring them with bait. The practice was banned in 1899. By that year, the sturgeon population was decimated, and the numbers remained low after that until broodstock-size fish — seven feet in length and about 150 pounds — were protected, and that was not until 1950. Populations began to rebound in the 1970s but have not recovered to their estimated abundance of the late 19th century.

Thus overfishing for all species was epidemic toward the end of the 19th century. Commercial salmon fishers often caught more than the canneries could handle. Canneries didn’t set landing limits until the mid-1880s. Excess fish were simply dumped back into the river. Many of these would wash up on shore and rot, providing food for gulls and bears and producing an omnipresent stench — Astoria had a reputation for its fishy odor. Rotting fish also provided breeding grounds for disease organisms like the typhoid bacillus.

As many as 500 salmon might be dumped in a single night. In her book The Trail Led North, Martha Ferguson McKeown quotes a cannery foreman describing life in Astoria in the 1880s:

There wasn’t no laws regulating what happened to the fish. The fishermen tried to catch all they could. The canneries agreed to take them. Every man tried to live up to his contract. Everyone aimed to make all he could. Folks in Astoria got pretty sore, but that was about the smell more than about the salmon being wasted.

By 1887, fishing pressure was intense on the lower river. The runs were beginning to decline as the result of overfishing and, equally important, the impacts to inland spawning areas from land development and land uses such as agriculture and logging. Salmon and steelhead also were affected by the construction of dams, many of them to produce hydroelectric power, which blocked access to spawning grounds on many important salmon and steelhead rivers including the Clearwater in Idaho, Spokane in Washington, and Clackamas in Oregon. In a 1976 report, the Pacific Northwest Regional Commission listed 23 dams that were built on salmon-producing rivers in the Columbia River Basin between 1889 and 1920.

The market for canned salmon was becoming saturated, and many canneries closed during the next decade or so. Canneries were paying $1 per fish, up from 15 cents in 1867, but the price of a case of canned salmon was just $5, down from $16. Alarmed at the apparent decline of the Columbia River species, in January 1887 the United States Senate asked the Army to investigate. In his report, the investigator, Major W.A. Jones, reported the fishing was so intense between April and August that it is was “ . . . a sort of a miracle that any fish escape to go up the river, except the small Blue backs, Steelheads and the precocious St. Jacob’s Chinook, which can pass through the 4 1/2-inch mesh of the gillnets.” Later, the Depression of 1893 forced some packers out of business.

Harvest numbers and pounds of fish don’t tell the real story. An 1895 report by Marshall McDonald, then U.S. Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries, noted that the Chinook harvest in the river had been declining since about 1883, or roughly 12 years. He blamed overharvest, but he also noted that a few tributary rivers had been blocked by dams. He speculated that the fishery in recent years was harvesting a greater proportion of the run than in the past, based on information that the number of adults reaching upriver spawning grounds was declining. McDonald assumed that habitat not blocked by dams was sufficient to continue producing an adequate number of adult fish if enough were allowed to escape harvest.

In 1903, Pacific Fisherman magazine reported a declining trend in the abundance of spring Chinook salmon — the salmon with the highest commercial value — in the Columbia and commented that the fishery increasingly was turning to fall Chinook to keep the harvest numbers up. This shift hurt upriver canneries, which relied more heavily on fall-run fish, the magazine reported. In response, salmon were being shipped from canneries on the lower river to canneries farther upriver, such as those at The Dalles. A shift in species emphasis in harvest was not new, however. In 1889, canneries began accepting steelhead and sockeye, and a few years after that, coho and chum, again to prop up the harvest numbers and cannery production. Fishing was carried on with gillnets, fish wheels, and fish traps — literally any device that could capture large quantities of fish.

Meanwhile, official denial reigned. In 1893, a special committee appointed by the Oregon Legislature in 1887 to review fishery problems on the Columbia released its report. The report concluded that claims of commercial overfishing by wheels, traps, and seines were based on “prejudice and misinformation” and recommended that fishing gear restrictions be repealed. This view was not universally held among fishery experts, however. The same year, 1893, Marshall McDonald gave the opening address to the World Fisheries Congress. McDonald argued for harvest regulation as a component of managing fisheries and expressed caution about the usefulness of hatcheries — contrary to popular beliefs at the time:

I am disposed to think that in this country we have relied too exclusively upon artificial propagation as a sole and adequate means for the maintenance of our fisheries. The artificial impregnation and hatching of fish ova and the planting of fry have been conducted on a stupendous scale. We have been disposed to measure results by quantity rather than quality, to estimate triumphs by volume rather than potentiality. We have paid too little attention to the necessary conditions to be fulfilled in order to give the largest return for a given expenditure of effort and money.

The following year, 1894, McDonald blamed commercial overfishing in the lower river as the primary cause of the salmon decline in the upper Columbia basin. Observers had noted that until 1878 the salmon runs at Kettle Falls had been prolific, but that the runs had been decreasing steadily since 1882. In his annual report for 1894, McDonald noted the decreasing numbers of adult salmon in the Spokane River, at Kettle Falls and in other upper-basin rivers and commented:

There is no reason to doubt — indeed, the fact is beyond question — that the number of salmon now reaching the head waters of streams in the Columbia River basin is insignificant in comparison with the number of which some years ago annually visited and spawned in these waters. . . . We must look to the great commercial fisheries prosecuted in the lower river for an explanation of this decrease, which portends inevitable disaster to these fisheries if the conditions which have brought it about are permitted to continue.

Commercial fishing in the Columbia River reached its one-year peak, in terms of poundage, in 1911, when 49.5 million pounds of salmon and steelhead were landed. The following year, however, the catch dropped to 27.5 million pounds. It would rise back into the low 40 millions a few more times, but it never would surpass the peak of 1911.

At about this time, the troll fishery began on the lower Columbia and steadily increased in both the number of boats and the number of fish harvested. Many gillnetters adopted hooks and lines at least partly to be able to fish on Sundays, when the gillnet fishery was closed. In contrast, the troll fishery was almost completely unregulated. Around the turn of the century, gasoline engines became available for fishing boats, and this increased their range and the effectiveness of fishing. Increasingly, fishers turned to hooks and lines, as opposed to nets. Gasoline-powered boats could range farther than the traditional sail-powered craft in search of fish, including large areas of the ocean. Trollers drag multiple lines from booms that extend from either side of their boats. By 1915 there were 500 trolling boats based in the lower Columbia, and by 1919 the number doubled, perhaps boosted by a shortage of flax for nets imposed by the advent of World War I.. 1915 also was the year that the number of gillnet boats peaked on the lower Columbia, at 2,856. In 1914, the total catch jumped up again, to 38.5 million pounds. In 1915 it was 42.7 million pounds, and it stayed above 40 million pounds per year through 1919 but then began a steady decline, with only one year, 1925, above 40 million pounds again.

Viewed in hindsight, overfishing appears reckless and greedy, but in the context of the time this was not the case - not exploitation of the resources as we might view it today. In fact, in that era it was not uncommon to believe that the supply of all natural resources - fish, trees, water and land for agriculture - essentially was limitless. As well, fisheries science was new and little was understood about the salmon life cycle and the importance of adequate spawning and rearing habitat.

And public demand for canned salmon was strong. Attempting to capitalize on this popularity, in 1913 several federal agencies, including the federal Bureau of Chemistry, joined national canning industry officials to celebrate the first National Canned Salmon Day, on March 14. National Canned Salmon Day was timed to coincide with the beginning of Lent.

One of the chief advocates of canned salmon was Dr. Carl Alsberg, the newly appointed director of the Bureau of Chemistry, who had just completed a three-year assignment with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. He saw the ocean as an alternative source of protein to land-based agriculture and told Harper’s Magazine in an interview that “every pound of food taken from the sea relieves the land of producing a corresponding amount of meat.”

Canned salmon was cheap in comparison to other animal proteins. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, canned salmon cost less than 10 cents per pound at the time, which was about half the price of chicken, lamb, beef, veal, and pork. World War I, however, did more to increase sales of canned salmon than the industry’s promotional efforts. Exports to Europe more than doubled to 80 million pounds per year, and more, and the U.S. government bought more than half of the Alaskan pack. Between 1916 and 1917, the price of Columbia River canned salmon increased more than 50 percent. Prices remained relatively constant after the war but fluctuated with the size of the annual pack. There was a brief depression in prices after the war when the U.S. government sold back much of the salmon it had bought and stockpiled.

The Great Depression affected both the pack — it declined — and the price of salmon, which declined to levels lower than before World War I. At this time, competition with imported fish products also depressed prices in the United States, and the impact of habitat losses in the Columbia River Basin began to take a toll on salmon production. Nonetheless, canned salmon remained cheaper than beef. In 1934, canned Columbia River sockeye salmon was 25 cents per pound and sirloin steak was 31 cents per pound.

Following the Depression years, the commercial harvest of Columbia River salmon continued to decline. From 24.7 million pounds in 1937 the harvest declined to 18.8 million pounds in 1938.

Through the 1950s and 1960s the commercial catch continued to decline, dropping below 10 million pounds for the first time in 1953 and staying there every year but one through 1969. The impacts of dams and habitat destruction, particularly habitat destruction, took a toll. A 1933 report by the Fish Commission of Oregon estimated that about half of the salmon spawning habitat in Columbia River tributaries had been wiped out by dams for irrigation and hydroelectricity. A 1943 report conducted for the Oregon Legislative Assembly reported a now-familiar litany of impacts on salmon: impassable dams that blocked access to spawning and rearing habitat, unscreened irrigation diversions, mining barriers, water pollution, reduced water flows, lethally high water temperatures in streams stripped of their overhanging vegetation, and overfishing.

In 1983, the commercial catch of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River totaled just 1,249,500 pounds, the lowest in the 30 years between 1960 and 1990. As the runs continued their steady decline in the early 1980s the state of Washington responded by setting shorter commercial fishing seasons. This angered commercial fishers, who felt they were not to blame for the declines and were being forced to bear a disproportionate share of the salmon recovery burden. They took their anger to Olympia, where Governor John Spellman was sympathetic but determined to enforce salmon conservation, and that meant harvest restrictions. At a June 1, 1984, press conference Spellman responded to a reporter’s question:

I don’t think there is any question that what has occurred, with regard to the salmon, is a disaster.... I understand everybody’s frustration, but unfortunately the incontrovertible fact is that the king salmon is in serious danger of extinction if something isn’t done. I think that what is being done [severe restrictions on commercial fishing], unfortunately, is the most appropriate thing. It would be nice if we had rosier alternatives. There are no rosier alternatives.

The salmon decline, and a corresponding decline in commercial salmon harvests, continued through the 1990s. The catch dropped below 1 million pounds in 1995 — it hadn’t been below 1 million pounds since 1866. The annual catch was less than 1.6 million pounds through 1999, and then bounced back up to nearly 5 million pounds per year in the early 2000s. While that was an improvement, it was clear that the era when fishers — Indian and non-Indian combined — hauled tens of millions of pounds of salmon and steelhead annually from the Columbia River was long gone.

Increasingly, many non-Indian commercial fishers turned to fishing in Alaska, where seasons were longer and, compared to the Columbia, fish were more plentiful. Columbia River fishers had been fishing also in Alaska since the turn of the 20th Century, when Columbia River packers expanded there and encouraged the men who fished for them to go. Typically, Columbia River fishers bought permits in an Alaskan fishery and boats. As fishing seasons grew increasingly shorter, Alaska was an attractive option for Columbia River fishers, particularly after commercial fishing was halted on the Columbia in the summer. For some, though, the decline on the Columbia was too much. They sold their boats and licenses (a federally funded license-buyback program proved popular) and gave up fishing altogether. For these it was the end of a career and a life style that ran deep into the roots of families and the culture of the lower Columbia.

Frances Clark of Chinook, Washington, who fishes with her husband, Les, didn’t give up fishing, but she saw the impacts of the cutbacks in the fishing-dependent communities of the lower river. She commented in 1996:

The value of the Columbia River gillnet fishery is so low, the industry is so depressed, people are taking mortgages against their life insurance. There is stress, divorces. We haven’t fished on summer Chinook since 1964, and the fish aren’t rebounding. We have a right to fish. The gill netters started fishing in 1853, and that was before the [Indian] treaties were signed.

The same year, 1996, fisherman Alan Takalo commented at a public meeting convened by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council in Astoria:

It was a good life until the last few years. I fished many seasons — early fall, late fall, bluebacks, spring. You always had one season that would come through for you and help pay the bills. Your whole life was geared that way. Now, you pretty much rely on [fishing in] Alaska. You can’t make a living here on the river.


What happened? The primary causes of the 150-year decline of salmon and steelhead are familiar — water pollution, overfishing, dams, habitat destruction, unfavorable ocean conditions, and the impacts of hatchery production on wild fish including overproduction and disease. But ineffective or lax regulation also played a part by allowing overfishing. Ironically, attempts to regulate the Columbia River commercial fishery date almost to the beginning of the fishery itself.

Attempts to regulate the Columbia River fishery began less than 10 years after the commercial fishery became established. Between 1866and 1888, as the salmon harvest in the lower Columbia River increased rapidly, Washington and Oregon enacted harvest restrictions, but they were weak and poorly enforced. In 1877, for example, when Washington still was a territory, the Legislature attempted to regulate the fishery by closing it on that side of the river for all or parts of March, April, August, and September. In 1878, Oregon did the same, but left April open except on weekends. In 1881, Washington reopened the fishery in September. Throughout, enforcement was lax and as confusing as the precise location of the border in the river. Washington Territory had introduced fishing gear restrictions to protect declining salmon runs from overfishing in 1871, and Oregon did the same in 1878. But overfishing and waste of fish — catching more fish than canneries could handle — remained a chronic problem.

Overfishing, wastage and lack of effective regulation of the fishery did not go unnoticed. On Sunday, January 1, 1882, The Oregonian newspaper of Portland celebrated the new year with lengthy, and for the most part laudatory, descriptions of the various business enterprises in Oregon, including the salmon industry. On the issue of protecting salmon from overharvest, the newspaper commented:

The legislatures of Oregon and Washington territory several years ago passed laws which checked the improvident slaughter which for a time threatened to exterminate the Columbia River salmon, but have not stopped great abuses. . . . The purpose of the laws restricting fishing was to give part of the run of fish each year a chance to reach the spawning grounds up the river and deposit their eggs, and of the law regulating the size of the mesh, etc., to allow the young and little fish to pass through and grow for subsequent seasons. . . . These laws, if enforced to the letter, would amply protect the fish, but many of their provisions are violated. . . . A number of canneries at Astoria, last spring, subscribed a fund of $1,000 to pay the Astoria chief of police to keep a close lookout for fishermen who violated the . . . law, but the service was not well done. All along the river this law was openly violated during the season just closed. Prosecuting officers should make special effort next season to enforce this law. Fish traps should be abolished, and the “wheel of fortune” at the Cascades, which takes up fish of every size, suppressed.

In 1887, the State Board of Fish Commissioners of Oregon, in its inaugural report to the governor, criticized the lax enforcement of fishery regulations:

The law was enacted in 1878, and was very well observed for one year; the second year there were many violations, and the past six years the law has been a dead letter on the statutes . . . A great deal of fishing gear has been constructed during the past six years, or since the law was allowed to become inoperative, and had the literal law been enforced this year, private property to the amount of $200,000 would have been rendered worthless.

This was but a small amount to the cannery owners, the Commissioners wrote, but the impact on individual fishers would have been devastating. The report concluded that commercial fishing was an important industry in the state and needed to be maintained, and it could be through hatcheries: “It is our opinion that a liberal supply of salmon can be maintained in any stream by artificial propagation, and we think that there should be one or two more such institutions on the Columbia River or its tributaries.”

Scientists of the time worried about the impacts of overfishing and the destruction of spawning and rearing habitat by activities such as logging and agriculture. In 1892, Livingston Stone of the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries expressed his concerns in a speech to the American Fisheries Society, in which he said, in part:

Not only is every contrivance employed that human ingenuity can devise to destroy the salmon of our west coast rivers, but surely more destructive, more fatal than all is the slow but inexorable march of these destroying agencies of human progress, before which the salmon just as surely disappear, as did the buffalo of the plains and the Indian of California. The helpless salmon’s life is gripped between these two forces — the murderous greed of the fishermen and the white man’s advancing civilization — and what hope is there for the salmon in the end?

By 1908, the lack of effective harvest restrictions had so decimated the Columbia River salmon runs and so confused the regulatory efforts of Washington and Oregon that the President of the United States proposed the federal government take action to do what the states apparently could not. In his State of the Union Address to Congress, President Theodore Roosevelt said:

The salmon fisheries of the Columbia River are now but a fraction of what they were 25 years ago, and what they would be now if the United States Government had taken complete charge of them by intervening between Oregon and Washington. During these 25 years, the fishermen of each state have naturally tried to take all they could get, and the two legislatures have never been able to agree on joint action of any kind adequate in degree for the protection of the fisheries.

Roosevelt proposed that the federal government should regulate commercial fishing on the river. That year the commercial salmon catch in the Columbia, which had been declining, reached a new low, and the legislatures of Oregon and Washington began working on uniform fishing regulations, which they completed and first promulgated the following year, 1909. The states concurrently regulated the fishery until 1918, when Congress approved the Columbia River Interstate Compact to permanently regulate harvest on the lower river. The states had agreed to form the Compact three years earlier.

Joint management of the Columbia River fishery, however, remained lax or ineffective. When the states periodically closed the river in order to discourage overfishing and allow more fish to escape harvest, many fishers simply left their gillnets at home and trolled for salmon in the ocean. Trolling took place near the mouth of the Columbia until the mid-1930s, when the catch of albacore tuna began to increase and fishers realized they could take both salmon and tuna farther out in the ocean.

In 1938, Willis Rich, director of research for the Oregon Fish Commission, expressed concern for the runs in an analysis of the Columbia River fishery: “Such (fishing) regulations and restrictions as have been imposed upon the Columbia River salmon fisheries apparently have very little effect insofar as they may act to reduce the intensity of fishing and provide a greater escapement,” he wrote.

Ocean trolling for salmon off the mouth of the Columbia, and beyond, continued at a high level into the early 1980s, according to annual fishery reports of the Oregon and Washington departments of fish and wildlife. Gillnet fishing continued in the lower Columbia, and as the number of salmon and steelhead reaching spawning grounds in the upper Columbia and lower Snake rivers continued to decline, public support for better enforcement and new regulations grew. The Columbia River Compact regulated harvests in the lower river, but Indian tribes complained that not enough fish were reaching the treaty-guaranteed fishing sites in the Columbia River Gorge and farther upriver. Twenty years of legal challenges and negotiations culminated in 1988 in the Indian fishing litigation known as U.S. v. Oregon. The U.S. District Court, in finding for the plaintiff Indians, ordered the litigants, which included the U.S. government, the states of Oregon and Washington, and the four mid-Columbia treaty tribes (Yakama, Warm Springs, Umatilla and Nez Perce) to develop the Columbia River Fish Management Plan to:

… provide a framework within which the Parties may exercise their sovereign powers in a coordinated and systematic manner in order to protect, rebuild and enhance upper Columbia River fish runs while providing harvests for both treaty Indian and non-Indian fisheries. The primary goals of the Parties are to rebuild weak runs to full productivity and fairly share the harvest of upper river runs between treaty Indian and non-Indian fisheries in the ocean and the Columbia River Basin.

To do this, the agreement stipulated, the parties would utilize harvest management as well as habitat protection and enhancement, and fish hatcheries. The U.S. v Oregon litigation is ongoing and continues to guide harvest seasons in the exclusive Indian commercial fishery between Bonneville and McNary dams. Commercial fishing today occurs in two distinct fisheries and six zones. The Indian-only commercial fishery area is identified as Zone Six. Non-Indian commercial fishing occurs in zones 1-5, which are between Bonneville Dam and the ocean.

Commercial landings of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia have declined steadily over the years, and from time to time harvests have been halted altogether in order to conserve the runs. In the first few years of the 21st century, however, salmon and steelhead runs boomed compared to runs in the 1990s. Scientists attributed the increase to improved juvenile fish survival as the result of improved spawning habitat and fish passage improvements at dams, and also to apparently favorable ocean habitat conditions. Fish managers were quick to caution against excessive optimism, though, as Columbia River salmon and steelhead runs have fluctuated between abundance and scarcity in the past.

Despite the run size increases, no non-Indian commercial fishing was allowed for sockeye or summer Chinook in 2002 or 2003. Non-Indian commercial fishing seasons for spring and fall Chinook, which are much more abundant, continued. In the Indian-only fishing area between Bonneville and McNary dams, there were brief sockeye and summer Chinook seasons in 2001-2003; sockeye sales were not allowed in 2003. Brief sport fishing seasons also were conducted in those years, but there were restrictions on the types and ages of salmon that were allowed to be caught. This pattern has been repeated in more recent years, with run sizes determining the duration and catch limits of tribal, sport, and commercial harvest seasons.


The early commercial salmon fishery on the Columbia River utilized a wide variety of gear, much of it quite efficient. Indians fished with traps, spears, hoop nets, and dip nets mounted on long poles; the early European and Euro-American immigrants brought drift gillnets to the Columbia. These are nets that are released from boats to hang suspended in the water with the aid of floats on top and weights on the bottom. They drift with the current and catch salmon by their gills — the fish try to swim through the net, are caught by their gills and then cannot escape. After a period of hours, the fisher pulls the net back into the boat, retrieving the fish in the process.

In addition to gillnets, fishers historically also used seines - some pulled from the water by horses - set nets, traps, and fish wheels. Over time, the most efficient, and therefore deadliest, techniques were banned by the states of Washington and Oregon. By 1950, the only allowable gear for commercial fishing were drift gillnets; Indians continued to fish with dip nets. Other gear, such as fish wheels and traps, had been eliminated - some by voters through initiative petitions.

Of all the gear used to capture salmon and steelhead, the most notorious and efficient was the fish wheel. The first were constructed on the Columbia in 1879. Fish wheels were positioned in the river so that their steel mesh buckets, driven by the current, would scoop fish from the water and drop them into a chute connected to an adjacent scow, or in some cases directly to a cannery. Nearly all of the fish wheels were owned by canneries.

Fish wheels were an innovation in commercial fishing, which at the time was conducted primarily in the broad lower Columbia where fishers set nets along the shore or let them drift from boats. The rocky canyons and swift currents of the mid-Columbia River Gorge where the first fish wheels were constructed were too difficult to fish with gillnets. Indians who fished there used dip nets on long, hand-held poles. But fish wheels brought large-scale non-Indian commercial fishing to the rich inland waters of the Columbia. In 1883 the Northern Pacific Railroad reached The Dalles, Oregon. With access to the railroad, and with the ruthless efficiency of fish wheels, canneries thrived.

By 1889, there were 57 fish wheels operating between Bonneville and Celilo Falls. The number would reach 76 in 1899. By 1900 there were five canneries and 76 fish wheels operating in the 50 miles between the falls of the Cascades and The Dalles. Fishing with fish wheels continued in the Columbia for 55 years.

Fish wheels contributed to the decline of Columbia River salmon. The most famous, or infamous, of these — Seufert’s No. 5 — was constructed in 1887 on a point of rock jutting into the Columbia on the Oregon side of the river at the head of Fivemile Rapids, about five miles upstream of The Dalles. It cost $8,890.97 and operated through 1926, when fish wheels were banned on the Oregon side of the river by the state’s voters. Seufert’s No. 5 averaged 146,000 pounds of salmon per year. Its best year was 1906, 418,000 pounds. Its poorest year was 1926, 21,000 pounds. Its one-day record was May 10, 1913, when it caught 70,000 pounds.

Fish traps were another efficient means of capturing salmon. Like fish wheels, they first were used on the Columbia in 1879. By 1886 there were 156. Fish traps were constructed of web attached to pilings driven into the river bed. Columbia River traps were modeled after those used in the Great Lakes. A web that stretched across the river’s current directed fish swimming upriver to the narrow, funnel-shaped entrance of the trap. Once in the trap, the fish could not find their way back out through the entrance.

There were advantages and disadvantages to all of these devices. Set nets, traps, wheels, and seines were either stationary or relied on a small niche, and if the fish did not pass through that area the devices came up empty. In this regard, gillnets were more flexible. Floater nets fished on the flood tide, diver nets fished on the ebb tide, and both were fished on drifting grounds in various parts of the river. Diver nets depended on fishermen removing debris from the bottom of the river, which would snag the net. Diver nets were particularly useful during times of freshet or high water, when other gear was immobilized. Fishermen who removed underwater snags from fishing grounds in preparation for using diver nets were organized into “snag unions” and were said to have a “drift right” on that fishing ground. Fishermen might own more than one drift right, providing the opportunity to move to a more advantageous location if necessary.

Commercial fishing on the Columbia was a big business when the runs were big. An 1892 census, for example, enumerated 5,545 people employed in the Columbia River salmon fishery. That year there were 38 seines on the river, 1,314 gillnets, 57 fish wheels and 75 dip nets, according to the census. In 1898, F.J. Larkin moved to Portland from San Francisco and brought with him an idea that would modernize the commercial fishing industry: gasoline engines in gillnet boats. By 1906, half of the boats operating from Astoria had gasoline engines, according to a report that year by Pacific Fisherman magazine. The other half still used sails, and their fishermen were at the mercy of the winds and tides. The number of fishers and the amount of gear increased steadily. In 1917, John W. Cobb commented in the annual report of the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries: “When the enormous number of fishermen engaged and the immense quantity of gear employed is considered, one sometimes wonders how many of the fish, in certain streams, at least, escape.”

Oregon and Washington moved slowly, and at different times, to regulate fixed gear such as fish wheels, traps, and seines. In 1926, public concern for the fish runs prompted Oregon’s voters to ban fish wheels. Many fish wheel owners responded by simply moving their gear to the Washington shore. In 1935, Washington banned fish wheels, and also other types of fixed gear including stationary nets and seines, which could be nearly as efficient as fish wheels. Near Celilo Falls, a seine operator hauled in 70,000 pounds of fish in a single day, September 13, 1947. In 1948, author Murray Morgan described horse seining on the lower Columbia: “From the highway you can see the draft horses moving shoulder deep in the green-gray water as they haul the seine into position, then plodding ashore and dragging out of the river a brown net flecked with silver or, just as often, clogged with weeds and driftwood.” Oregon voters outlawed fixed gear, including seines, the following year, 1949. In 1950, Oregon and Washington declared drift gillnets the only legal commercial fishing gear on the Columbia River for non-Indians.

Beginning in about 1955, Columbia River gillnet fishermen started using synthetic nets, replacing the linen nets that had been in use before. This change greatly increased the efficiency of gillnet fishing. Commercial fishers continue to use nylon nets, but experiments continue with the size of the mesh, length of time in the water, and other parameters in order to fish more selectively for the strongest runs and allow the weakest to escape to spawn. One promising technique is a net with mesh designed in a way that entangles fish by their teeth, not their gills. Fish caught in gillnets suffocate, but fish caught in “tangle nets” are able to breath. Thus they can be pulled from the nets alive and released back into the river if they are an endangered or threatened species. If the fish are stunned, they are placed in special boxes through which water is pumped until they are revived. Fishers call these, fittingly, “Lazarus boxes,” after the man Jesus raised from the dead.

Another promising experiment is the growing use of net pens in areas away from the mainstem Columbia to raise salmon. Known as SAFE areas, for Select Area Fishery Enhancement, fish are released from pens as juveniles and return to these areas as adults, where they are fished commercially, thus removing fishing pressure from the weaker runs returning upriver in the mainstem. A successful net-pen fishery in the lower Columbia is operated jointly by the Clatsop Economic Development Council, of Astoria, and the Oregon and Washington fish and wildlife departments. It is supported by Salmon for All, an industry association of fishermen and processors, who assess themselves a portion of the value of the catch to pay for this project and provide volunteer labor. Another source of funding is the Bonneville Power Administration through the Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program.

In the 21st Century, commercial fisheries are conducted in five zones in the Columbia River below Bonneville Dam by non-Indian commercial gillnetters, and in Zone 6 between Bonneville and McNary dams by Indian fishers. Due to changing policies on rearing fish in hatcheries, listings of various salmonid species under the Endangered Species Act, and continued environmental challenges as the human population of the Pacific Northwest increases, fishers are constantly adapting to new circumstances in order to conduct fisheries. Commercial fishing remains and important economic and cultural mainstay of many lower-Columbia and Indian communities.