As a drought tightens its grip on the Pacific Northwest, burning away mountain snow and warming rivers, state officials and Native American tribes are becoming increasingly worried that one of the region’s most precious resources — wild salmon — might disappear.
Native Americans, who for centuries have relied on salmon for food and ceremonial rituals, say the area’s five species of salmon have been declining for years, but the current threat is worse than anything they have seen.
“I grew up always having salmon,” said Lorraine Loomis, fisheries director for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, whose culture is so intertwined with the migrating fish that they’re called the “People of the Salmon.” Salmon feasts once marked every phase of life on the reservation north of Seattle — naming ceremonies, weddings, funerals, memorials to the dead. Now they are few, she said.
“We’re very worried,” said N. Kathryn Brigham, chair of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission in Portland, Ore., which helps manage fisheries for the Yakama Nation and the Warm Springs, Nez Perce and the Umatilla tribes in Oregon, Washington and Idaho.
An estimated quarter-million salmon, more than half of the spring spawning run up the Columbia River, perished, probably because of a disease that thrives in warm water and causes gill rot, officials said. Normally cool streams in the river basin are 13 degrees warmer than the 60 degrees preferred by salmon, Brigham said.