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Columbia River

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By Fen Montaigne Photographs by Jim Richardson

Columbia River salmon are in decline despite heroic measures to sustain them, and Pacific Northwesterners search their souls: Should some dams be dismantled to save the fish?

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Twelve hundred miles (1,900 kilometers) from its source in the Canadian Rockies, the Columbia River flows past the once thriving fishing port of Astoria, Oregon, and empties into the Pacific Ocean. It was at Astoria in the late 1800s that the first great blow to salmon was dealt, when commercial fishermen hauled out as much as 43 million pounds (20 million kilograms) of salmon and steelhead a year. The commercial catch declined to the still sizable level of 25 million pounds (11 million kilograms) a year in the 1930s, before the dambuilding boom. Today the catch is around one to two million pounds (500,000 to 900,000 kilograms) a year. Fishing-industry representatives claim that at least 10,000 jobs on the Columbia have been lost because of the decline of salmon. Steve Fick of Astoria has witnessed the decline. A stout bespectacled man with brown hair, he has been a commercial fisherman for most of his 43 years. He owns one of the four fish-processing plants on the lower Columbia River that still handle salmon, down from two dozen canneries early in the 20th century.

On a cool, overcast day I went fishing with him just off Astoria, a picturesque stretch where a graceful green bridge arches over the river from Astoria to Megler on the hilly, heavily wooded Washington shore. Taking advantage of one of the limited periods when the Columbia is open to commercial fishing, Fick chugged out of Astoria’s harbor in his 24-foot (7-meter) aluminum boat, passing the rotting pilings of old salmon canneries, one of which used to employ his father as chief electrician. As we moved into the river, Fick said, “I worked in a cannery and made plenty of money, enough to go to college. And there were a hundred guys like me in Astoria. You just don’t make that kind of money working at McDonald’s. There were so many opportunities here, a chance to choose your own path in life. And that’s all been taken away from us.” Working as a commercial fisherman in the mid-1980s, he experienced the last big catches on the river, when the harvest—for four brief years—was ten times what it is today. We talked as he payed out 500 yards (450 meters) of nylon net from a five-foot-high (1.5-meter-high) aluminum spool. “My primary income is from fish processing, but I’m an old dog with bad habits, and I still fish,” he told me. “Fishing is not just a buck for us. It’s a way of life. This is a very important part of our culture.”


The greatest benefit to the Pacific Northwest, he said, would come if the Snake dams were breached, workers and farmers compensated, and Idaho salmon given a chance to rebound. When I asked if he was sure dams were the chief culprit in the downward spiral of Columbia and Snake River salmon, he replied, “Why did fishing not really go down until you started throwing chunks of concrete in the river? Tell me that.”

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

Photographer Jim Richardson discusses the plight of the river and its salmon.

Should dams be breached to save salmon? And when should nature’s needs be put ahead of human needs? Join the discussion.

Final Edit
The one that got away from our coverage of the Columbia River is this month’s Final Edit.

E-greet a friend with this image of the Columbia River.

Virtual World
Explore an animated version of the Columbia River.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Before dams were built on the Columbia River, it took a salmon smolt one to three weeks to make it downriver—tail first (due to the strong current). Now it takes a smolt one to three months head first, mainly because they must swim in the slow-moving waters of the reservoirs.

—Jennifer Fox

Bonneville Power Administration
An agency of the Department of Energy, BPA is a power-marketing agency for the electricity generated by 29 federal dams in the Columbia Basin.

Center for Columbia River History
A joint project by the Washington State Historical Society, Portland State University, and Washington State University Vancouver. Contains detailed information on the history and uses of the Columbia River and a photo archive.

Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition
Save Our Wild Salmon is a coalition of sport and commercial fishing groups, fishing businesses and conservation organizations from across the Northwest dedicated to restoring healthy, sustainable populations of wild salmon to the Snake and Columbia rivers.

Columbia River Conversations
Learn about and join the debate on how to save Pacific salmon in the Columbia Basin at this website which is chock full of scientific and economic information as well as answers to frequently asked questions.

Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission
Composed of the four Columbia Basin treaty tribes, CRITFC’s website provides a historical overview of the Native American presence in the basin, the importance of salmon to the tribes, and the text of the 1855 treaties reserving their fishing rights.

Federal Caucus Salmon Recovery Site
Sponsored by the nine federal agencies that must respond to the Endangered Species Act, this website posts the U.S. government’s strategy and progress in protecting the threatened salmon stocks in the Columbia River system.

Fish Passage Center
Provides current and historical data on salmon passage in the Columbia Basin. The FPC makes recommendations to federal, state, and tribal agencies regarding fish passage management.

Grand Coulee Dam
Read about this mile-long powerhouse on the Columbia, complete with tourist information on local attractions.

U.S. Army Corps’ Juvenile Fish Transportation Program
See diagrams and read the history of the salmon-barging program.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Threatened and Endangered Species
Find official listings of endangered or threatened species in the United States and abroad.

Wilderness Information Network
Find out how many acres of wilderness area are in your state or what the conditions are of a certain trail. Information on this site is funded by the Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Fish and Wildlife Service.


Harden, Blaine. A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia. W.W. Norton & Company, 1996.

Lichatowich, Jim. Salmon Without Rivers: A History of the Pacific Salmon Crisis. Island Press, 1999.

Taylor, Joseph. Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis. University of Washington Press, 1999.

White, Richard. The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River. Hill and Wang, 1995.


Thornton, Jim. “How Gumby Saved My Life,” National Geographic Adventure (March/April 2000), 51-55.

Heacox, Kim, K.M. Kostyal, Paul Robert Walker, and Mel White. Exploring the Great Rivers of North America. National Geographic Books, 1999.

Daily, Laura. “Wind Warriors,” National Geographic World (June 1997), 2-6.

Van Dyk, Jere. “Long Journey of the Pacific Salmon,” National Geographic (July 1990), 3-37.

Madden, Robert, and others. America’s Spectacular Northwest. National Geographic Books, 1982.

Boyer, David S. “The Columbia River, Powerhouse of the Northwest,” National Geographic (December 1974), 821-847.

Borah, Leo A. “From Sagebrush to Roses on the Columbia,” National Geographic (November 1952), 571-611.

Williams, Maynard Owen. “The Columbia Turns on the Power,” National Geographic (June 1941), 749-792.


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