Fishing for Answers

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Around the state OSU faculty and staff are helping with salmon restoration.

Nobody knows when the first salmon streaked through an ancient stream in the land that was to become Oregon. Scientists believe it could have been more than 20 million years ago. Nobody I'm aware of is putting up billboards forecasting exactly when a "last wild salmon" will ply Oregon water. But unless you've been on a very long trip to a remote spot, you probably know the fish is in trouble. At least many people think so, including biologists and state and federal officials.

Literature on salmon problems in this part of the country is growing like a voracious young chinook. An example:

"Pacific salmon have disappeared from about 40% of their historical breeding ranges in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California over the last century, and many remaining populations are severely depressed in areas where they were formerly abundant."

That excerpt is from a book, titled Upstream: Salmon and Society in the Pacific Northwest, compiled by a committee of scientists from a broad range of disciplines. The National Research Council, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, published it the year before last.

As many of us say these days, what's the bottom line? What do these fabled fish, the Northwest's various species of salmon and closely related sea-run trout, need to live well?

It's pretty simple, on the surface. Salmon need cold, clean water and certain kinds of space, or "physical habitat," as scientists call it. They need food. Also, many need the freedom to roam all the way from the mountain headwaters of a stream to the sea and back. (After they're born in fresh water, instinct tells most salmon to migrate to the ocean as juveniles and, when they're older, return home to spawn.)

Underneath the surface, there's a torrent of debate over what salmon need to live well-that is, what's causing the salmon decline and what should to be done about it. Some of the factors under examination don't involve us humans directly. An example is a weather change like El Niño that may influence a salmon's supply of clean, cold water, or the food available in the ocean. But the majority of what's under examination does involve us.

Fingers are pointed a lot. In the end the list of potential causes leads to just about every person breathing. It includes a fishing industry that developed harvest technologies to meet a national rather than historically local consumer demand for salmon. Dams, with their many commercial and recreational purposes. It includes fishing, forestry, mining, farming, ranching, manufacturing and other kinds of industry. It includes urban living (millions of us mowing our lawns,
fertilizing and killing weeds, driving vehicles that pollute, disposing of wastes, knocking down trees for homes and businesses, paving the landscape, consuming various kinds of products, and so on).

Some say hatcheries we built with good intentions, to sustain or increase salmon runs, hurt wild salmon when "weaker" hatchery fish interbred with them, competed with them for living space and food, and infected them with diseases. Others say human activities and policies increased the number of predatory creatures that kill salmon.

O.K. Life's not perfect. Things happen. Why not just build more hatcheries and be content with those fish? Many scientists say there's evidence that, over the long run, populations of hatchery salmon won't survive. They don't have the right genes, or at the least the diversity of genes that'll allow them to adapt to the inevitable changes nature throws at all its creatures. These scientists say preserving the distinct wild populations of fish that evolved in various areas is the key to saving salmon across the region.

Salmon jumping upstream.

An age-old sight in Oregon: Wild chinook salmon heading upstream. Photo: Tom and Pat Leeson

How do Oregonians feel about all this? It varies. To some of us, protecting salmon is a matter of extreme cultural and religious importance. Some believe the fish are indicators of how healthy the world we live in is for all creatures. Some people just plain don't think much about salmon, don't care to see one unless it's filleted on their plate. Interesting though, even those folks sometimes change their attitudes when they consider the situation in a different context: for example, when they think about how they'd feel if the robin or the earthworm was moving toward extinction, or at least disappearing around their homes.

But even if a person doesn't believe the fish has any troubles, or just doesn't give a whit about salmon, wild or from a hatchery, it's hard to imagine many individuals who wouldn't be concerned about salmon as a public issue. The federal government has listed several populations of the fish as threatened or endangered, and the potential for many more "listings" looms on the horizon.

We even have the "Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds." It was developed by the Governor, the state legislature, people in many state agencies and institutions, the support of industry and conservation groups, and private citizens statewide such as the members of local "watershed councils." The mission of the nationally publicized Oregon Plan is to "restore our native fish populations-and the aquatic systems that support them-to productive and sustainable levels
that will provide substantial environmental, cultural, and economic benefits." The Oregon Plan is giving us a chance to solve some of our own salmon problems, instead of living with the federal requirements that kick in when creatures are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The purpose of the rest of this article is simple: to tell you about, and give you examples of, the kind of work Oregon State University is doing that's contributing to salmon protection and restoration.

Land Grant universities like OSU are sort of unusual creatures themselves. The university's Agricultural Experiment Station with its branch research facilities, the Extension Service with its offices in every county, the Hatfield Marine Science Center at Newport and many other OSU facilities give the institution a statewide physical presence. The scope of OSU's programs is statewide, too. These days, there are salmon-related activities ranging from campus classrooms
and laboratories to the shores of the Pacific and beyond and in the other direction to the eastern Oregon headwaters of streams (and even the lands above those streams that channel rainwater and snowmelt into them). There's salmon work in most of OSU's schools and colleges, such as Forestry, Oceanography, Science, Agriculture, Engineering and Liberal Arts.

Most of the examples that follow came from a database assembled by Bill Braunworth, an extension program coordinator for OSU's College of Agricultural Sciences. Braunworth put together the database because he's an OSU representative on what's called the "implementation team" of the Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds.

"Our work includes both educational programs and research," he says. "What strikes me is that we have so much going on, from study of the pathology of salmon to study of their habitat to study of upland management that contributes to water quality. And an awful lot that's going on at OSU I haven't captured in the database yet."

Sometimes, people not involved with science day-to-day don't understand how it works. It includes investigating, posing hypotheses, testing them and debating. Scientists often communicate by challenging one another's data, and challenging interpretations drawn from that data. If at times it seems like they disagree, well, they do.

"Universities encourage multiple approaches and a lively exchange of ideas. That helps us move toward providing society with real long-term solutions," says Thayne Dutson, the dean of OSU's College of Agricultural Sciences and director of the Agricultural Experiment Station.

"Think of a disease," he continues. "You might be able to treat the symptoms right away and mask them. But you have to understand the disease, all the causes, before you can heal it. With salmon, some of our people are trying to identify and more fully understand root causes of the problem, some are looking at and debating options for dealing with those causes, and some are involved in on-the-ground education and restoration work.

"It's all important. In a case like this you can't afford not to use what data you have to address the problem the best you can. In eight or 10 years we'll know a lot more about what worked and what didn't. But it's also important not to delude ourselves into thinking quick-fix attempts are necessarily long-range solutions. We have to keep working on understanding the entire system so we can eliminate root causes."

1896 photo of men fishing on banks of a river.

A Columbia River harvest, circa 1896. As the population grew, and technology changed, fishing increasingly put pressure on salmon. Photo: Oregon Historical Society

All that said, here are some examples intended to give you the flavor of OSU work related to salmon restoration:

-Research groups led by Carl Schreck, a professor in OSU's Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and a program leader with the federal Oregon Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit based at the university, have more than 10 projects in Braunworth's database.

In one, the researchers genetically established distinct salmon and trout populations, sometimes called ESUs, or evolutionarily significant units. These populations may differ in their ability to resist certain disease organisms.

In an ongoing project the scientists are looking for toxic chemicals that disrupt reproduction in chinook salmon and other fish in the Columbia River. "We have found residues of breakdown products of DDT in fish tissues," says Schreck.

Another ongoing project involves putting small transmitters in the stomachs of juvenile salmon (spring and fall chinook and steelhead) before they pass over dams on the lower Columbia River and documenting the fishes' behavior and fate. This is helping the researchers determine hazardous dam passage routes and evaluate risks associated with proposed dam bypass exit locations.

Also, the researchers are evaluating the physical impact of barging young salmon (spring chinook) around dams, contrasting that with survivorship among fish that make their own way down the river.

"Findings indicate that while the physiological quality of transported fish is quite variable, nearly all of the transported fish successfully migrate to the estuary [the stretch where the Columbia mixes with the tides of the Pacific Ocean]," Schreck says.

-For those young salmon that get to the estuary, there's more danger waiting, says Dan Roby, an OSU wildlife professor who's collaborating on research with Ken Collis of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

The problem is hungry birds such as cormorants, gulls and a colony of Caspian terns that have established themselves over the last 11 years on Rice Island, created by dredging in the lower Columbia.

"The Caspian tern colony exceeds 8,000 nesting pairs, the largest colony of this species in North America and perhaps the world," says Roby. "The diet of terns nesting at the Rice Island colony in 1997 consisted of 85 percent juvenile salmon, mostly coho, chinook and steelhead smolts."

This year researchers are testing alternatives for managing the cormorants, gulls and terns in the estuary, and in 1999 "the best options will be implemented," says Roby.

-Bill Liss, an OSU fisheries professor, believes non-native fish such as smallmouth bass have an impact on salmon before they are old enough to try and negotiate the dam system.

"With our research, I've been surprised to see how far up Snake and Grande Ronde tributaries the smallmouth bass have penetrated," says Liss. Besides eating salmon, non-native fish can hurt salmon by competing with them for food and space early in their life cycle. Any land management practices that change a stream to make it a better home for non-native fish also may hurt salmon, he notes.

-"Our research on the ocean ecology of north Pacific salmon is providing a better understanding of the factors that affect the survival and growth of anadromous salmon of Oregon," says Bill Pearcy, a professor emeritus of oceanography.

"Changes in the ocean environment have had a major role in the decline of salmon stocks in Oregon. These include a change in ocean circulation and coastal upwelling during the late 1970s, an unprecedented duration of El Niños during the early 1990s, and the two very large El Niños in 1982-83 and 1997-98. These have resulted in low ocean productivity and poor conditions for ocean growth and survival in our coastal waters.

"Salmon spend most of their life in the ocean, where nearly all their growth and much of their mortality occurs," adds Pearcy. "Therefore it is important to understand how much of their mortality takes place in the ocean versus fresh water. Otherwise it will be difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of the Oregon Plan to restore our dwindling stocks."

-A group led by George Taylor, a professor in OSU's College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences and the state's official climatologist, is taking an integrated look at weather and ocean conditions and stream flows.

A river running through a valley.

The Willamette River: Industry and urban life have hurt streams and fish. Photo: Bob Rost

"There is evidence that those parameters vary over multi-decade periods, with periods of 20?25 years with generally 'favorable' conditions onshore and offshore, and other periods of about the same length with much less favorable conditions," says Taylor. "The period 1948?1974 saw abundant salmon in the Northwest, and the onshore and offshore conditions were very favorable. During the years since 1975, conditions have been quite poor; not coincidentally, salmon have declined significantly during that period.

"There is evidence that a regime shift may have occurred in the last several years and that the potential for a rebound in salmon numbers exists," Taylor asserts.

-"I'm involved with two projects that focus on the restoration of riparian [streamside] forests, which can enhance fish habitat," says Bill Emmingham of OSU's Department of Forest Science. "At issue is the need to have large conifers along streams so they will eventually fall in and help create pools, trap spawning gravels and provide fish with protection from predators.

"Forestry practiced in the Coast Range before about 1973, when the Forest Practices Act changed, created conditions conducive to red alder regeneration near streams," Emmingham continues. "As a consequence, hundreds of miles of stream reach are dominated by hardwood forests. Restoration involves planting young conifers, or releasing conifers that have been overtopped and suppressed by the fast-growing alder and bigleaf maple.

"It turns out that rather large gaps of half an acre or more, or heavy thinning that leaves trees scattered 35 or 40 feet apart, are necessary to give conifers a reasonable chance to thrive and grow large," adds the researcher. "This may seem like a drastic step for wildlife biologists or watershed councils concerned about shade. However, it is clear that where conifers are planted in hardwood stands without such treatments they are unlikely to reach the large sizes desired."

-What do residents along the Oregon Coast think about salmon recovery? "They strongly support restoration, but they don't have much confidence in government's ability to solve salmon problems," says Court Smith, a professor in OSU's Department of Anthropology. In January 1997, Smith and fellow researchers Jennifer Gilden and Joe Cone completed a survey of coastal residents sponsored by the Oregon Sea Grant program.

"The respondents showed greatest confidence in the Governor and University Extension," says Smith. "On several topics coastal residents differ from salmon restoration planners. Coastal residents wonder why restoration proposals reduce hatcheries and place so much emphasis on wild fish. They point to mammal and bird predation as causes of salmon decline that do not get enough attention. Follow-up surveys are being discussed."

-Though some scientists believe populations of hatchery-reared salmon are not well equipped to survive in the long run, and that they may weaken wild salmon genetically and by transmitting diseases, some of those same researchers acknowledge that hatcheries may be necessary in the years to come-at the very least to preserve and increase populations of wild fish that are dangerously low. For 20 years OSU microbiologist Jo-Ann Leong and colleagues have been using sophisticated genetic techniques to develop vaccines against salmon diseases.

"Since [hatchery] supplementation of some sort must continue," says Leong, "developing anti-disease vaccines and more effective techniques for administering them appears to be an important piece in the salmon recovery puzzle."

-"Our previous work concerned anthropogenic (human) influences on inland watersheds. But most of our current research is focused on the effects of livestock grazing in high desert watersheds. Many of us have worked together for a decade," says Hiram Li, a biologist in OSU's Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.

Li is talking about The Blue Mountain Research Group. The group includes scientists from several OSU departments, the University of Oregon and the University of Wisconsin. Li says many of the impacts the group has documented are harmful to fish, the aquatic insects they eat and the water they live in.

One of the researchers' most significant advances involves thermal imaging. "A helicopter carrying an infrared sensor and a video camera flies along a stream," he explains. "With these we can capture stream temperature profiles over long distances quickly and identify the places suitable for salmon and steelhead. Then we try to figure out why the stream emits those temperature patterns.

"This new technique is leading to new ideas concerning watershed and stream restoration," says Li. "It may enable fish managers to index the carrying capacity of a stream for trout and salmon quickly and inexpensively."

-"The North Fork of the John Day River was formerly the site of a placer mine that left great mounds of cobble [mine tailings] along the stream edges," says Judy Li, of OSU's Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. To restore the flood plain, the Umatilla National Forest employees have been removing some of the mine tailings to improve habitat for spring chinook and bull trout.

A dam.

OSU researchers are studying young salmon as the fish try to get around Bonneville and other Columbia River dams on their way to the ocean. Photo: Tom Gentle

"For his master's degree program, Bill Gerth, a graduate student in our department, is documenting how stream invertebrates [insects] respond," says Li. "This spring, Bill and his helpers will collect bottom-dwelling invertebrates and measure water quality and changing stream morphology [structure]." Other researchers will document the fishes' response to the changing availability of the insects they feed on.

-In a project at OSU's experimental Hall Ranch near La Grande, scientists are studying the effect of providing cattle with water and salt away from streams during late summer. Researchers from OSU, the University of Idaho and the U.S. Forest Service's Blue Mountains Natural Resources Institute are documenting the impact on cattle distribution and productivity, the animals' use of riparian areas, insect populations and ranch economics.

Preliminary results suggest the strategy "makes sense biologically and economically" for a ranch in northeastern Oregon, says John Tanaka, an OSU professor of agricultural and resource economics. Project participants have sponsored tours to show the public how they entice cattle away from streams and distribute them more efficiently over the land, notes Mike McInnis, a range scientist with the OSU Agriculture Program at Eastern Oregon University.

-"In one of our projects we are trying to understand if there are thermal refuges associated with streams and rivers in eastern Oregon that help explain how salmon are still surviving in habitats that have been severely altered by historical land uses such as mining, railroads, harvesting of riparian trees, loss of willows and shrubs by grazing, road effects, etc.," says Bob Beschta, a hydrologist in OSU's Department of Forest Science.

The research was started to understand more about how cooler groundwater may interact with streams in the summer. "It's becoming increasingly clear that salmon recovery will require major changes in how we manage the landscape, and particularly how we manage riparian areas," says Beschta.

-"We are building a wetland for dairy wastewater treatment," says Amy Peters, a livestock agent in Coos County for the OSU Extension Service. "It will serve as a demonstration site to show dairy producers an alternate way to prevent pollution of water resources.

"This project will assist in improving water quality for fisheries by addressing agricultural non-point pollution concerns," says Peters. "The constructed wetland will aid in decreasing the amount of organic material entering the Coquille River system."

-"In Oregon there are many voluntary efforts by agricultural and associated interests to address water quality issues," says Mike Borman, an extension specialist in OSU's Department of Rangeland Resources. "Examples include the Oregon Cattlemen's Association's Watershed Ecosystem (WESt) program, the Oregon Watershed Improvement Coalition (OWIC), and Coordinated Resource Management Planning (CRMP) efforts. Many of our department's efforts are intended to provide those groups and private landowners with the information they need to effectively address these issues."

-A lot of OSU county extension agents are involved with local watershed restoration projects. Examples:

"Buck Hollow is alive and well," says Sandy Macnab, an extension agent for Sherman and Wasco counties. "It is a major watershed restoration project that was divided up to be tackled over a 10-year period, starting about 1990. The interest was brought to our attention by several ranchers reminiscing about the 'good old days' and how the Buck Hollow watershed was severely damaged by the 1964 Christmas flood." Macnab believes the work of several agencies and
"a cast of hundreds" of individuals is paying off. "Redds [salmon spawning areas] have been seen 22 miles up from the mouth this last year, the first time they've been there since before the '64 flood."

"The Beaver Creek riparian project is an effort to learn how to successfully grow trees in former pasture land next to a creek in the Coast Range," says Bill Rogers, an extension agent in Lincoln County. State and federal agencies are working on the project. "We have learned how to protect trees from beaver and cattle," says Rogers. "More and more landowners are impressed by the results and want to do something on their land. The major benefits to taxpayers will occur as more streamside habitat is improved. Reduced stream temperatures will improve the conditions for healthy fish in coastal streams."

Wallowa County extension agent John Williams has been working on public education facets of the Wallowa County Nez Perce Tribe Salmon Habitat Recovery Plan. "Outcomes will only be known years, maybe decades, down the road," says Williams. "However, we have seen a change in the management by landowners as they become aware of the salmon needs and water quality issues. We've implemented more than 100 watershed improvement projects."

-OSU is generating a considerable amount of educational material related to salmon recovery. For example, agents and specialists working for OSU's forestry, Sea Grant, agriculture and other extension programs are assembling a 300-plus page book, Watershed Stewardship: A Learning Guide. The book will provide a curriculum on how to protect and restore watersheds. It will target members of watershed councils, private landowners and others.

A valley of farmlands.

Photo: Bob Rost

Ranchers herding cattle.

Photo: Oregon State University Archives

Historical photo of men with large log.

Historically, some farming, ranching and logging practices have degraded watersheds. Now, the emphasis is on finding methods compatible with fish. Photo: Oregon State University Archives

Joe Cone, of Oregon Sea Grant, and Lynn Ketchum, of OSU Extension and Experiment Station Communications, produced a half-hour video titled The Return of the Salmon: Restoring the Fish to Rivers and Waterways. The purpose was to "help middle school through adult audiences understand a complicated natural resource problem," says Ketchum. With Curry County extension watershed management agent Derek Godwin, Ketchum is producing additional "how-to" videos on how to improve watersheds in various parts of the state.

We All Live Downstream, produced by Steve Dodrill, also in OSU's Department of Extension and Experiment Station Communications, looks at urban and rural runoff and the problems it creates. He's working on another video, tentatively titled After the Rain, that will focus on water pollution from urban sources and how to prevent it.

-Many at OSU are serving on various local, state and national committees dealing with salmon and watershed issues. For example, five OSU faculty members are working on the Independent Multidisciplinary Science Team appointed by the Governor, the president of the Oregon Senate and the speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives to provide science oversight for the Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds.

-What about the future, and the big picture? Fisheries biologist Stan Gregory and colleagues in his OSU department are taking a broad, ecosystem-level look at the entire Willamette River basin that may help Oregonians make more informed choices about their future.

This work is part of the Pacific Northwest Ecosystem Consortium, a regional research program that involves not only OSU but the University of Oregon, the University of Washington and the Corvallis Research Laboratory of the Environmental Protection Agency.

One of the goals is to understand ecological consequences of possible policies and decisions related to changes in human populations. The objectives include answering these questions: How can we measure trajectories of change in ecosystems ranging from local sites to entire basins? What are critical yardsticks for comparing different scenarios of the future? What management options offer greater potential to lead to the kind of environment that Oregonians want in their future?

"We are attempting to identify changes that have occurred over the last century and potential conditions of our environment and communities over the next 100 years," notes Gregory. "This is rather than having a bunch of academic pinheads develop options no one buys. We're working with the state and citizen groups to identify reasonable scenarios for the future. Teams of scientists then will evaluate the ecological and social outcomes of those alternative futures."


Humans and salmon have co-existed in Oregon for at least 10,000 years, scientists say. If you want to know where to find more information about what OSU is doing to help the fish, or about the Oregon Plan, look over the short accompanying article "Learn More About It," on this page. These efforts could have a significant impact on the next 10,000 years.


OSU's College of Agricultural Sciences, if you want more information about entries in his database of OSU projects related to salmon restoration. The number is (541) 737-4251.

There are lots of places you can get information on salmon restoration online. Here are a few:

-The Oregon Plan has an excellent web site. There's even an illustrated version of the Oregon Plan for kids.

-You can learn about publications, videos, news releases and other materials related to salmon and watershed protection on the web site of OSU's Department of Extension and Experiment Station Communications.

-Oregon Sea Grant Communications produces a variety of educational materials about salmon, including videos, publications and a newsletter, Restoration. The program's web site provides access to much of this information as well as links to other salmon information sources.

Published in: Ecosystems