Salmon: Running the Gauntlet


The Columbia River Basin once teemed with young salmon heading toward the ocean and mature salmon returning to their home rivers and streams to spawn. Now, many salmon species of the Pacific Northwest are extinct, and thirteen, including the iconic sockeye salmon, are currently endangered. When European Americans arrived in the area 150 years ago, the subsequent growth and change in population severely affected the ecosystems. Overfishing, habitat destruction, and dam construction contributed to salmon’s decline, which led, in the late-nineteenth century, to a new government-sanctioned industry created to restore dwindling salmon populations: hatcheries. Today, salmon hatcheries provide controlled environments where early developmental stages of the salmon lifecycle are replicated within the confines of concrete walls; eggs are artificially fertilized and incubated in tubes and plastic bags, and young salmon are raised in tanks before being released into the wild.

Regrettably, however, those very systems set up with the intention of saving salmon are contributing to the species’ devastating decline. The hatcheries’ controlled environment strips salmon of the genetic diversity and natural instinct critical for their survival in the wild. Once released into open rivers and streams, these populations of fish are vulnerable to a variety of challenges they are unprepared to meet. Though ambitious efforts have been made to monitor and assist hatchery salmon in the wild – from barge and truck transportation around dams, to predator relocation programs – the results of those efforts have been essentially unsuccessful.

Salmon are an integral part of the ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest. Returning to their spawning grounds, they bring with them nutrient-rich marine nitrogen from the ocean. During their run, they feed all manner of wildlife, including bears and eagles, and they subsequently fertilize the surrounding forests. After they die, their bodies feed countless microorganisms, which in turn feed salmon hatchlings. It remains to be seen if the various efforts of legislators, biologists, engineers, and conservationists can restore salmon numbers, and in the process, restore the vital role salmon play in the health of the land, and in the lives of the animals and people that depend on them.

  • Derek Bauer

    Refreshing to see the dam deconstructed and salmon on their way. I will be watching Nature Sunday night.

  • John Platt

    Too bad that Nature started with the premise that hatcheries are bad and ignored the tremendous progress that Columbia River treaty fishing tribes have made in restoring upriver runs using a tool that formerly served to eliminate their fisheries until 1985. Tribes are changing the way that hatcheries are used from being simply a substitute for natural habitat to serving as nurseries for restoration and rebuilding efforts. From 78 wild spawners in 1992, the Snake River natural-spawning fall chinook run had almost 15,000 returning wild fish last year. Umatilla wild spring chinook have been restored to the Umatilla River after being extirpated for seventy years.. Clearwater coho, declared extinct in 1992, are now repopulating the Clearwater gravel. Yakama wild spring chinook are rebounding as are summers. The story goes on and on but in a different direction than OPB and Nature have spun it. Shame on you for displaying a political slant that ignores the tremendous work that the tribes have devoted to this cause and for not staying current with the state of Columbia River salmon. Ignorant at best; racist at worst.

  • Aaryn Valencia

    So Mr. Platt…what about the salmon in iccicle cr… that have lost habitat due to the hatchery there diverting water… or the failer of hatcheries to make up for the fish lost due to Grande Coulee….. Just over a million total salmon return compared to the 16 or more million before dams…

  • Charles Hudson


    You may have answered your own question. The Leavenworth complex, which includes Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery on Icicle Creek, is a relocation program related to the construction of Grand Coulee Dam.
    I’m not aware of it ever having been asked to provide 1:1 mitigation but even as such, 16 million fish is a basin-wide high water mark.

  • Richard Smith

    Icicle Creek has never even remotely compensated for the loss of 1,100 miles of salmon habitat lost due to Grand Coulee’s Construction. Grand Coulee was famous for it’s “June Hogs”

  • Cathy Hearn

    I saw the premier last night; Nature did not say hatcheries are bad nor did the panel in the discussion afterward. The creation of hatcheries was well-intended; after the rivers were dammed and the migration path of the salmon interrupted, hatcheries were seen as a solution to preserving these fish. There have been many solutions since, each implemented with good intentions, to solve the issues created by the one before. Yet the salmon numbers are a fraction of what they were and we now spend $2B a year to capture, harvest, fertilize, raise, release, shuttle, monitor, analyze, and protect them against predators. Unfortunately, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

    It’s clear hatcheries are now necessary in restoring salmon, as is human intervention in returning the rivers and streams to their natural habitat. But at some point the process needs to be returned to Mother Nature. The question is will those who are now invested in the long list of solutions – the hatcheries, the engineers, Fish & Game, the power districts, etc. be able to come together, put their own self-interests aside, and develop, as Jim Martin said, the 100 year plan before it’s too late.

    The film had much to cover in the 50 minutes it was given. I thought it did a great job of raising awareness for the general public. I found no political slant in the way the information was presented. And I’m disappointed that words like “ignorant” and “racist” are thrown out because the efforts of one individual group were not highlighted. I would suggest Mr. Platt get the funding to present another great story – how the tribes have been impacted by the loss of salmon and have found a way to solve the issue through their restoration efforts.

    Thanks to Nature and those involved in this excellent film – I had no idea.

  • John Platt

    The facts speak for themselves. The dams are there and not likely to be removed any time soon. Mitigation for the damage hydro caused (6 – 11 million adults) is a work in progress. Tribes are successfully restoring and rebuilding some of the wild stocks in the upper Columbia and Snake using hatcheries as nurseries versus the management philosophy that said hatcheries are the solution for mitigating damage to non-Indian fisheries by placing them in the lower river thereby making upriver habitat safe for development, The tribes’ advocacy for a new way to use artificial propagation started in 1982 but has only come part of the way. Yet the tribes’ success is an indicator of what can be done when some of the wealth produced by those dams is devoted to salmon spawning and rearing in their natal habitat.

  • Kevin Harris

    John Platt:

    “ignorant and best, racist at worst’ ? Huh? What film were you watching? What I saw was a very illuminating examination of many complicated and interwoven issues that most people in this country know absolutely zero about. Saying ‘the dams are there and not likely to be removed’ seems like an attempt to discourage an understanding of the actual historical baseline of huge abundance pre-dams, but contextual history is very important, actually. Questioning received ideas about what defines ’success’ (especially when billions of dollars a year are being spent by the taxpayers to achieve that ’success’) is also a very important part of progress. The fact that the Tribes may be trying out some new, well-intentioned models of restoration doesn’t eliminate the need to reexamine and reassess very, very expensive attempts to ‘manage’ a natural system that produced huge wealth of resources in the past and now costs a fortune.

    Ironically the Tribes were the ones who lost the most when the dams went in. And, yes, they are an important stakeholder, but they’re not the only ones…so are the people footing the bill. Everybody has a right to weigh the cost-benefit equation on hydro-power, salmon fisheries and expensive restoration policy that, in a larger systemic sense, doesn’t seem to be working.

    A thoughtful film like this certainly doesn’t warrant ugly words like ‘ignorant’ and ‘racist’. That’s just cheap…and intellectually thin.

    Do you represent the Tribes in some official or professional capacity? If so, you really should disclose that and advocate for their point of view without using the cheap tactic of trying to bully people with words like ‘racist’.
    It makes people tune you out and marginalizes the Tribes’ legitimate concerns.

    If you were my lawyer and you represented me like that, I’d find somebody else quick.

  • Rory E. Glennie

    As a staunch supporter and advocate for “wild” salmonids and a former multi-term Chairman and President of The Steelhead Society of British Columbia I have great empathy for the remnant stocks of fish we have today. The Society was instrumental in having a fish stopping water diversion dam removed from the Brown’s river and in having B.C. Hydro substantially modify their penstock intake to safely strain fish from the water before it went through the turbines on the Puntledge river, both streams are on Vancouver Island. I have some idea of the enormous amount of energy and personal commitment it requires to take on and successfully conclude these kind of battles.
    I am a 21st. century realist in as much as embracing the appropriate fish hatchery practices which can make a big difference in a sustained recovery of near extinct stocks. One thing that has not changed, and probably never will, is the attitude of some that – trite as it may seem — since we have the tools to mitigate damage and assist recovery, then continued decimation of fish stocks in the name of progress is all a cost of doing business. Such thinking is generally the purview of the bean-counting economists and, sadly enough, even a few biologists.
    I too remember the “June Hogs” headed for the Columbia river system, as they passed through the Strait of Georgia. These plump, football shaped Chinook salmon were a welcomed early season component of the recreational salmon fishery catch. The health of Columbia river and many other rivers’ salmon is of great importance to folks far removed from the actual river basin itself. Perhaps the airing of this PBS program will help wake-up, shake-up concerned citizens coast wide.

  • MIke Beasley

    Mr. Platt,

    I have spent most of my adult life in Eastern WA. Granted I was not around before most of the lower river dams were built. But I have seen the impacts the 4 dams on the Snake have had. The upper watershed has changed completely. Yes fish come back, but a fraction of their historical numbers and most of those are of hatchery origin. They are completely different than the wild fish that used to return. I am a fly fisherman so I have a bias. Regardless, many people that relied on these fish for recreation and for livelihood have been negatively impacted by the Snake River dams. If you have the time read the Book “The last fisherman” by Gary Colvin it illustrates the impact the dams have had on the returning fish up and down the Pacific NW. You may be right, these dams may stay for many years, but the cost to those that relied on the bounty the Columbia/Snake once produced will never return unless lower Snake is returned to its natural state. Not sure where you live, but if you have the time drive up the Snake above Asotin WA or up the Clearwater above Lewiston Id. and go fishing if you do you will find smallmouth bass and pike minnows stuffed with Chinook and Steelhead fry. This never happened before the dams were built. Why? because the river acted like a river and flushed the fry down. Now it is is lake. Fry don’t swim down stream, they are flushed, not current, so they sit there… Sooner or later they are lunch.

    No fry no returning adults.

    I am neither an environmentalist or “pro dam” but after 40 plus years it is pretty clear nature had a better way….

  • john larison


    You wrote, “Tribes are successfully restoring and rebuilding some of the wild stocks in the upper Columbia and Snake using hatcheries as nurseries versus the management philosophy that said hatcheries are the solution for mitigating damage to non-Indian fisheries by placing them in the lower river thereby making upriver habitat safe for development.”

    I’m curious: could you explain “hatcheries as nurseries” and how that process differs from the process used by agents of said “management philosophy.”

    Very curious. Thanks-


  • John Platt

    From 1948 to 1985, state and federal policy directed hatchery mitigation toward production of fish for fisheries thereby minimizing support and protection of salmon spawing and rearing in natural habitat. In other words the beginning and the end of the hatchery salmon’s life was to be the hatchery. The tribes’ treaty rights include the right to take fish at all usual and accustomed fishing places. This right is satisfied by having fish spawning and rearing in habitat throughout the Columbia Basin. On this basis, the hatchery is used to increase survival at the egg-to-smolt stage of the salmon life cycle and outplant those juveniles in habitat so they will return as adults to the gravel and spawn in natural habitat where their progeny will rear and journey to the ocean. In other words, put fish back in the river and protect the place where they live. The hatchery, in this case, is a nursery to improve survival of salmon that, along with habitat improvement, is aimed toward restoring and rebuilding wild populations rather than leaving them to dwindle and wink out. Examples include the Umatilla, the Clearwater and Snake, the Yakima, the Hood and many other tributaries above Bonneville Dam. Thanks for the question.

  • Local


  • Aaron Beck

    Did any of you actually watch the program? It seems like you all are getting lost on the details.

    My take away was that the incredibly expensive (biologically, financially, human hours, etc.) absurd manner with which we’ve tried to approach salmon recovery with during the past 100 years does not work.

    Our assembly line, production style approach has ensured a dwindling genetic variety while giving us all a false sense of hope. “This is not a video game. This is biology.” The fish are resilient, and if we give them even a fraction of a resemblance of a river back they could have a shot at survival and growth all on their own “with no payment or recompense.”

    What was it? 6 fish turned into 1300 fish when spills happened and the fish actually got to live in river, well a sort of river, anyway.

    I’m pretty sure that we are so far down this rabbit hole that we are just going to continue to spin, talk, argue, and engineer ourselves in circles until there really is no hope left.

    Hopefully some Canadians get to watch this film as they start to think about assembly line production and their options.

  • Kay in Seattle

    As a long time resident of the Northwest and a regular watcher of Nature I tuned in to Sunday’s program with interest. I must say I was a bit disappointed. I thought there was an over emphasis on hatcheries and it seemed rather political e.g. references to “cold war conceived dams”. What on earth did the cold war have to do with it?
    And, the notion that it would be simple to remove dams is simplistic. To me the greatest story is how the region has come together to save this iconic species. Three states, most of the relevant tribes, federal agences and many in the broader community have worked in unprecedented ways to restore this symbol of our region. I wish you had told the whole story.

  • Warren in Puget Sound

    Gill nets , why only in Washington and Oregon?
    Harvest of Salmon everywhere Alaska , Canada , Washington,and by everyone. Commercial, Tribal, and recreational. Please review Chum Salmon in north Puget Sound.
    Harvest, habitat, hatchery, and hydro are all issues but HARVEST is what we can control today.

  • Pete

    First I would like to commend Nature for doing a story that badly needs to be told. Secondly, I think a point that was woven through the show that has been missed is how many billions of $$’s are spent annually collecting, hatching, transporting, etc when all the salmon need to survive is a flow of water. Unfortunately the dam owners refuse to allow spill unless ordered by a judge because it will cost them a few bucks!

  • Sharon Stanton

    Will the show of May 1 be repeated, if so when? Thanks

  • E de Wet

    When I tried to watch, I got a message that the video ia not available. What is up?

  • Mike Beasley

    I live in the heart of Eastern Wa. I have spent most of my adult life on the Snake, Clearwater and Grande Ronde Rivers. This show is a excellent portrayal of what these iconic fish go through to get back to their natal gravel beds. There are benefits to the dams, however I believe we now can see how such structures impact so many ecosystems. The four dams on the Snake do offer water passage to Lewiston and limited hydro power in off peak times, however at what cost? Please read the book “The Last Fisherman” by Gary Colvin. It portrays how the hydro complex on the Columbia/Snake watershed impacted communities up and down the Pacific Coast. There is no simple answers, however it does appear pretty clear if these rivers act more like real rivers and these fish can get to the ocean quickly and back they can bounce back from the pitiful numbers we now see. I hope in my lifetime I will have the opportunity to see these runs come back to a wild sustainable population.

  • CJ Margulis

    Congratulations to the Nature Team: this is one of the better programs of recent vintage from Nature — and I watch every episode. The Salmon story is a very complicated one, too complicated to tell the ENTIRE long-form of the story but the program was well done, accurate, and an invitation to those who have not yet partaken in freshwater riparian restoration, or estuarine habitat restoration efforts, to roll up their sleeves and get busy helping those fish and all their fellow creatures in the ecosystems on which they depend. Because Salmon are predators in their natural state, the comprehensive restoration or all key habitats will be key to success. That means restoring rivers AND estuary outlets which are the nurseries for so many species on which the adult salmon will depend. If they don’t get enough nutrients in the marine system, they can’t swim all the way back up to carry their nutrition up those rivers to
    nourish inland rivers and their surrounding forest systems. Well done by Nature… I wish you’d consider going to a longer format (when required by the subject)… SALMON is a particularly difficult story to tell but you did a very good job in 50 minute of TV time…

  • Norm Cimon

    The story was well told, and it was outstanding. Stark but outstanding. The notion that we can continue to truck fish around dams, a strategy that is totally reliant on abundant fuel and the good graces of a society that’s been in the region for less than 200 years is absurd. And the loss of all the habitat above Hells Canyon is criminal. There’s no other word for it.

    The river and it’s adjacent habitats need the fish as much as the fish need the river. We need to wrap our minds around that and go on from here.

  • vic

    looks good can’t what to see the whole thing

  • Julie from BC

    Looking forward to Jim Norton speaking at Trout Unlimited’s Wild Steelhead Festival taking place in Healdsburg, CA on Friday February 10th, 2012 at the Villa Chanticleer. Feel free to join us friday night with Jim and/or Saturday for family fun, fish, food and friendship in the Healdsburg plaza. … oh yeah, and local wine too!

    Browse the website for more information.

  • John

    Even taking out all the dams will nor work as long as we alow the indians and commerical guys to net the columbia. They will destroy any run no matter what side. Greed is what controls both these groups.

  • Web development. Writing site. Design Studio. TOP 10. Top 5. TOP 1.

    I relish, cause I discovered just what I was looking for. You have ended my 4 day long hunt! God Bless you man. Have a nice day. Bye

  • pvcwindows

    nice info here, thank u :)

  • John Jameson

    nice info here, thank u :)

  • lohooooo

    thnk u for usefull info

  • finanse

    hi!,I like your writing so a lot! share we keep in touch more about your post on AOL? I need an expert in this area to resolve my problem. May be that is you! Having a look ahead to peer you.

  • Michal Architekt

    Zgadzam się, sam jestem architektem i dostrzegam, że inwestorzy, szczególnie prywatni nie znają zupełnie realiów i warto prezentować im właściwe rozwiązania. Pozdrawiam serdecznie.

  • Dennis Ruuspakka

    Thank you for the wonderful program Salmon: Running the Gaunlet. WOW! Only on PBS!

    Could you EMail me with the info on the name (or link to it) of the mesmerizing Native American song/chant playing in the background towards the last part of the program.

    Thank You!

Produced by THIRTEEN    ©2014 THIRTEEN Productions LLC. All rights reserved.

PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.