Restoring Salmon Fisheries — and A Tribal Birthright — in Pacific Northwest

After centuries of overfishing and development, salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest were on the brink of collapse by the late 20th century, presenting a grim challenge for Native American tribes that have long relied on the fish. Aja DeCoteau ’07 M.E.M. is part of a response plan that has helped spur a remarkable recovery.

By Ben Goldfarb

Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.

Aja decoteau profile fes
If you’re seeking to understand how the Pacific Northwest’s wild salmon runs nearly vanished in less than 200 years, the Columbia River Basin provides a prime case study. Throughout the 20th century, the Columbia and its tributaries were plugged by one hydroelectric dam after another, cutting off fish from their spawning grounds. For salmon that had already been decimated by overfishing in the mid-1800s, the dams presented an immense impediment to restoration and pushed fish populations even closer to the brink.
As the salmon suffered, says Aja DeCoteau ’07 M.E.M., Watershed Department Manager at the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), so did the Native American tribes in the region — including the Yakama, Nez Perce, Umatilla, and Warm Springs — who had relied on fish for centuries. Many tribal members were relocated from their lands along the main stem of the Columbia to reservations with diminished access to salmon runs, and although northwestern tribes eventually won the right to use traditional fishing sites and catch 50 percent of harvestable salmon, these treaties were sometimes violated by fisheries managers and private landowners.
Everyone is working together now. We acknowledge our differences in philosophy, but we’re moving forward.
— Aja DeCoteau
Yet after decades of ecological devastation and social injustice, the Columbia’s fisheries are en route to a remarkable comeback: This past year, more than 2 million salmon surmounted the Bonneville Dam. And while that’s still a far cry from the estimated 17 million salmon that once surged up the Columbia annually, it’s a dramatic improvement from the 1970s, when runs withered to fewer than 500,000 fish.
The recovery, moreover, is only beginning. “Back in 1995, our overarching goal was to have 4 million fish over Bonneville dam by 2020,” says DeCoteau, a citizen of the Yakama Nation who also has affiliation with the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewas. “This all comes from our 25-year tribal restoration plan, Wy-Kan-Ush-Mi Wa-Kish-Wit.”
That plan, whose title translates to “Spirit of the Salmon,” is conceptually simple but logistically complex. CRITFC, a technical and coordinating agency that represents four Columbia Basin tribes, is trying to restore anadromous fish (species that spend their early lives in rivers and their adulthood at sea) to the upper reaches of the Columbia, above the Bonneville Dam. Wy-Kan-Ush-Mi Wa-Kish-Wit seeks to integrate traditional ecological knowledge with contemporary science to protect and rehabilitate the Columbia Basin’s salmon-bearing ecosystems, an aim that is equally rooted in ecology and tribal sovereignty. Just last year, this plan was updated to bring specific recommendations up to date and provide a snapshot of what is left to accomplish. After all, says DeCoteau, the tribal right to fish is meaningless if there are no fish to catch.
Aja holds salmon
To return fish to their historical waters, tribal fisheries managers must carefully steward the salmon through every phrase of their life cycle — a process called “gravel to gravel management” — by restoring stream habitat and collaborating with state and federal agencies to improve fish passage. Thanks to a series of accords that resolved several ongoing fisheries management disputes between tribes, Bonneville Power, and state and federal agencies, DeCoteau says that historic acrimony has been replaced by cooperation on habitat restoration projects. “Everyone is working together now,” she says. “We acknowledge our differences in philosophy, but we’re moving forward.”
Moving forward includes one potentially controversial recovery measure: fish hatcheries. While the rampant production of hatchery-produced salmon — a common strategy throughout the Pacific Northwest — has been criticized for diluting the gene pools of wild fish, DeCoteau believes that properly deployed hatcheries are an essential tool for salmon recovery. “We call them supplementation programs,” says DeCoteau. “Using fish that come from wild stock is a crucial part of our strategy.” The tribes’ hatchery programs are designed to ensure that hatchery-produced fish are as genetically similar to wild fish as possible, and DeCoteau envisions a day when endangered wild stocks are effectively rebuilt, and even delisted, through hatchery supplementation.

As Wy-Kan-Ush-Mi Wa-Kish-Wit begins to bear fish, salmon are regaining their place at the center of Columbia River Basin culture. DeCoteau learned to fish alongside her grandfather, who cut his own teeth at Celilo Falls, a fishing and trading center that historians say resembled the “Wall Street of the West” before it was inundated by Dalles Dam in 1957. Celilo Falls may be submerged for good, but spring still begins with a communal first salmon feasts at all tribal longhouses, and at the height of the fishing season, dozens of native fishermen line the Columbia River and its tributaries with dipnets and hook-and-line. During especially abundant years, commercial boats take to the water, too. “Ultimately, our natural resources are our cultural resources,” DeCoteau says.
My classmates [at F&ES] had such diverse interests and backgrounds, and I learned about places and issues that I’d never thought about before.
— Aja DeCoteau
Today, DeCoteau says that her two years at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies were ideal preparation for a job that combines management, policy, and several branches of science. “Taking all these interdisciplinary classes fueled my curiosity,” she says. “My classmates had such diverse interests and backgrounds, and I learned about places and issues that I’d never thought about before.” DeCoteau’s varied responsibilities reflect her interdisciplinary mindset: her work at CRITFC includes everything from coordinating climate adaptation to improving water quality, and she provides tribal representation on the board of the Oregon Environmental Council.
The Columbia River Valley has long been familiar ground to DeCoteau, who grew up on Yakama Nation Reservation in Wapato, Washington. While the Columbia’s salmon runs haven’t yet been restored to the abundance her grandfather witnessed at Celilo Falls, the fish are proving more resilient than anyone expected. In 2011, the Condit Hydroelectric Project, a giant, century-old dam on an important Columbia tributary, was decommissioned and breached. “Nine months later,” says DeCoteau, “salmon were running up the river.”

About the Author

Ben Goldfarb is a 2013 graduate of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, where he served as editor of Sage Magazine. He is a Seattle-based correspondent for High Country News, a magazine that covers environmental issues throughout the American West.