‘Salmon Wars’ episode 4: The salmon’s struggle

By Tony Schick (OPB) and Julie Sabatier (OPB)
April 3, 2024 12 p.m.
Wesla Selam, left, and Lottie Sam prepare salmon in the kitchen of the longhouse in Toppenish, Wash., on April 3, 2022. The food prep took place before an annual ceremony held by the The Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation.

Wesla Selam, left, and Lottie Sam prepare salmon in the kitchen of the longhouse in Toppenish, Wash., on April 3, 2022. The food prep took place before an annual ceremony held by the The Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation.

Tony Schick / OPB


The “Salmon Wars” podcast series tells the story of salmon in the Northwest in a way you haven’t heard before — through the voices of one Yakama Nation family who have been fighting for salmon for generations.

Salmon used to be plentiful, and they’ve been a staple of tribal diets for centuries. Since the early 1900s, salmon populations in the Columbia River have steadily declined thanks to overfishing, dams, habitat loss and warming waters. Hatcheries are one way the U.S. government has tried to make up for the loss of wild salmon. But it hasn’t worked. In this episode, we examine what the decline of salmon has meant for Columbia River tribes.

Our theme music is by Kele Goodwin and Sean Ogilvie.

Special thanks to Katie Campbell and Sarah Blustain at ProPublica.

The audio of Don Sampson in this episode came from the film ”Echo Of Water Against Rocks,” by Ian McCluskey.


Tony Schick: On a cloudy spring day, Randy Settler and Sam George were headed back toward Stanley Rock, when they spotted a police truck waiting for them on the shore.

Sam George: Inter-tribal? Looks like them.

Randy Settler: You think so?

SG: Yeah.

TS: Sam recognized it as the inter-tribal police, who patrol camps and enforce fishing rules. After last episode full of arrests and fishing protests, you might be thinking Sam and Randy are in for some confrontation. But times have changed.

SG: Good morning

Officer: Good to see you, man.

TS: The scars of the fish wars are still there. But law enforcement has softened its approach. And tribal enforcement, in particular, exists to protect the tribal treaty rights. Remember, Randy’s parents were involved in cases that cemented the tribes’ rights to self regulate. Randy greeted the officers at the docks, and they talked about his day on the water.

Officer 1: Hey, Randy

RS: Hey, how’s it going?

Officer 1: How you doing?

RS: Yeah. We caught one all week.

Officer 1: One all week, huh?

Officer 2: I talked to Andy Sohappy this week. He said he wasn’t catching anything.

RS: They didn’t catch anything. We got really good nets out.

Officer 2: Yeah. So, you’d think, but who knows?

TS: It’s not the fact that they’re talking I’m interested in now. It’s what they’re talking about. Randy’s sites are considered some of the best on the river. If there’s fish to catch, he and his crew will catch them.

RS: They’re talking about some survival study in the ocean and they’re predicting that within so many years that the ocean’s gonna warm so much that it’s gonna decrease the survivability of salmon by 90%. And so they’re saying the Columbia River runs will be wiped out.

Officer 1: Really? That quickly, huh?

RS: Yeah. Well look what’s going on right now.

Officer 2: This is, this is warming every year.

TS: These men used to be on opposing sides. Now, they’re facing the same scary reality. This is “Salmon Wars.” I’m Tony Schick.


TS: As we’ve shown you over these first three episodes, salmon are at the heart of Indigenous life along the Columbia River. They’re a key part of tribal diets, tribal economies, tribal ceremonies and celebrations. That’s because salmon used to be everywhere. A reasonable estimate of the historic Columbia River salmon population was somewhere in the 16 million range. Oral histories put it a lot higher. That sheer volume can be hard to wrap your head around. So, here’s one way to think about it. At 16 million, if you were to hear a note for every salmon swimming up the Columbia, it might sound something like this.

[ data sonification of 16 million fish ]

TS: By the late 1920s, when decades of overfishing left only a quarter of those fish in the river, it’d sound more like this.

[ data sonification of 4 million fish ]

TS: The government responded to this decline by producing more baby fish in hatcheries. But the number of adult salmon in the river kept dropping. Because all those babies couldn’t survive. Tribes have tried to solve that, and they seem to have gotten closer than anyone has before. Hold that thought for a later episode, because there’s a lot more to the story of tribes and hatcheries. The result of these government hatcheries, though, was yet another broken promise. Because we told tribes we could make up for all the habitat we poured concrete over or dumped our wastewater into. And we didn’t.


TS: When salmon first showed signs of decline in the Columbia, people weren’t worried about species extinction or treaties. They were worried about supply for the fishing industry. Then along came a man named Spencer Baird. Picture a big bushy beard, woolen suit and a bowtie. If you collect trading cards of 19th century naturalists, Baird’s in the starter pack. He was the first curator of the Smithsonian. In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant also made him the first person in charge of what’s known today as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries. That’s the massive federal agency responsible for endangered species protections for salmon. Baird had this idea that we — humans — could stop the decline of salmon if we hatched massive numbers of baby fish in pens, and then stocked rivers with them. He got the first one of these hatcheries built in 1872 in California. He pitched it as the solution on the Columbia River just three years later. His promise to Northwest states was this: We can crank out so many salmon that we’ll not only preserve the supply, we’ll increase it. Oregon’s state fishing commissioners absolutely loved Baird’s idea of making more fish instead of, you know, fishing more responsibly.

This is what they said about it (in my colleague Crystal Ligori’s voice, doing her best impression of how these old commissioners sound in my head).

Crystal Ligori: “Less care and labor are needed to raise fish than to raise other animals, or even to raise vegetables.”

TS: Guess what. They were wrong. Salmon are what’s called “anadromous.” They’re born in the gravel beds of freshwater streams. They live for a year or so in freshwater before migrating to the ocean. And then, eventually, they return years later, navigating from the open ocean all the way back to their home stream, where they spawn the next generation, to start the cycle again. Columbia River tribes’ culture and salmon management have always been in tune with this life cycle. The mass production, less-care-than-vegetables approach wasn’t in tune with this. It didn’t work. And the supply of salmon didn’t increase. Amid concerns about costs, the first era of hatcheries fizzled out before it began. Then, at the end of the ‘30s, came the era of dam-building. And federal officials needed a way to sell the public on the idea that they could preserve salmon while damming up the rivers. Biologists with the federal government were not confident that hatcheries could actually make up for the impact of dams. But they thought preserving the wild runs of salmon would be impossible with dams in place. So, it was really the only idea they had. That didn’t stop government officials from making bold promises that salmon would stay plentiful. Here’s Don Sampson, former head of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, in an old clip where he recounts what federal dam builders told local tribal leaders before they completed the first dam in 1938.

Don Sampson: The head of the Corps of Engineers came down there and told Tommy Thompson and the leaders down there, he says, “Don’t worry, chief. You’ll have more salmon than you ever had.”

TS: Tommy Thompson was the chief of the village at Celilo, the hallowed fishing grounds. The government also immortalized its promise to him in films about early dams like Bonneville, before The Dalles Dam destroyed Celilo Falls.

Bonneville Power Administration film: Chief Tommy can go on spearing the Royal Chinook in the tumultuous roar of Celilo Falls. The salmon are going through.

TS: Guess what. They were wrong again. Let’s take a quick break, and when we come back, we’ll hear about the consequences.


TS (on tape): It is…Oh, is that … that’s a dead dog in the middle of the road. That’s … yikes. It is Sunday, April 3rd, 2022, 8:54 in the morning. And I am rolling up to the Toppenish Longhouse.

TS: Partway through the first spring fishing season I spent with Randy, he invited me up to the Yakama reservation in Central Washington. He wanted me to see how salmon is used in ceremonies.

TS (on tape):There’s a Ford truck in front of me. That might be Randy. That’s the man.

(Car door, gravel crunch sounds)

RS: Hey.

TS (on tape): How ya doin?

TS: Randy is one of the main fishermen for the longhouse here in Toppenish. He used to play basketball with the longhouse leader, his old friend Lonnie Selam. We got there early, because he had to drop off the fish he’d caught for the ceremony.


RS: What should I do? Just drop them off here?

Tracy Selam: Uh, yeah. Could let ‘em know in the kitchen.

RS: Yeah. There’s just couple fish is all.

Tracy Selam: Couple of fish?

RS: Yeah.

Tracy Selam: Yeah. All right.

Tony Schick: You heard correctly: Randy told his friend that he’d only brought two salmon in his cooler. Two, to serve a couple hundred people who’d be at the longhouse that day. Randy told me it was a big deal that I’d been invited to attend the feast that day. The Toppenish longhouse is open to anyone. They wouldn’t turn you away if you showed up. But this longhouse doesn’t exactly advertise. It’s not every day that a non-Native person attends this kind of ceremony. So, he walked me through the main hall and into the kitchen to deliver the fish. Then, he promptly left me there.

RS: Tony, I’m gonna go find a place to crash out for a while.

TS (on tape): OK.

RS: That cooler’s my cooler. Can you grab it after they’re done?

TS (on tape): You want me to just throw it in my rig?

RS: Yeah, just rinse it out and that way I know it won’t walk away.

TS (on tape): yeah

RS: If you go by my trailer — do you know which one’s my trailer? You can just take the rope off there and slide it in there.

TS: So that left me, not a tribal member, alone in the kitchen of a longhouse where I knew nobody. Just a white guy with a microphone, surrounded by a dozen or so women, not entirely sure why I was standing there while they tried to prep the biggest feast of the year.

Lottie Sam: Girls! No, you guys gotta chore. Get in here.

TS: Lottie Sam is one of the heads of the kitchen, splitting her time between cooking, wrangling the young girls into helping, and adjusting their tribal regalia. In between getting in everyone’s way, I peppered Lottie with questions. And she indulged me while she cleaned and cut the salmon from Randy and some others pulled from the freezer. The ceremony is meant to honor the first returning salmon of the new year. They were cooking frozen salmon because, otherwise, they wouldn’t have enough. I watched Lottie prep salmon like I’d never seen before. She sent the filets outside to be smoked over alder wood, then sliced the fish heads in half and laid them on the baking tray next to fins and tails.

LS: The only thing we don’t eat is the bones and the teeth, but everything else is, let’s say, sucked clean (laugh)

TS: When your feast celebrates the gift of salmon, you don’t waste any of it.

LS: Even if it’s just the eyeball.

TS: They prepare salmon not just for the big feasts, but for every religious gathering.

LS: With 10,000 or almost 11,000 tribal members. it’s not guaranteed that all our people have salmon on their table every day. So, this Sunday gives that opportunity for these foods to give us nourishment and blessing.

TS: Columbia River tribes used to eat about a pound of salmon, per person, every day. It was something like 60% of their diet. And they still had enough left over that they could trade dried and preserved salmon for other goods. Today, the goal is to make sure everybody who attends can at least get a taste of salmon.

LS: And there’s been a few times where we haven’t had enough salmon to get us through those years.

(drum music in the background)

TS: Drums and bells signaled the start of the day’s events. And Lottie still had work to do.

TS (on tape): Am I … keeping you from?

LS: Yeah. (laughs)

TS (on tape): OK. I’ll let you get back to it.

TS: It’s hard to overstate the disappearance of a people’s primary food source. Research across the globe has connected the loss of traditional diets with spikes in health problems for Indigenous populations. In one West Coast tribe, the Karuk of Northern California, researchers found a direct link between families’ loss of access to salmon and increased prevalence of diabetes and heart disease within those same families. And a study of Native Alaskans showed a salmon-rich diet can actually prevent heart disease and diabetes. Contemporary science caught up to what tribes knew all along: Salmon is medicine.

RS: We need this salmon, this is our food. This is what we as aboriginal people need to exist. And it’s not changed from the time of the treaty until to this day.

TS: And it’s not a coincidence that when Native people and salmon were forced away from each other, they both suffered.

Zach Penney: I think there’s a very good correlation that when the tribes were getting put on reservations in the United States, the salmon were not doing well. I mean, we co-evolved together.

TS: That’s biologist Zach Penney. He’s Nez Perce. I talked to Penney a couple of years ago when he used to work for Columbia River treaty tribes. He’s now an adviser for NOAA Fisheries. Yeah, the agency that grew out of Spencer Baird’s work back in the 19th century. We talked about how, on behalf of white people like me, the U.S. government forced both the Native people and the salmon away from their river home, into an existence on the government’s terms: salmon confined to hatcheries. People confined to reservations.

ZP: Yeah, just like a hatchery, it’s like, ‘oh, we’re gonna remove their habitat. We’ll put them there.’

TS: Salmon didn’t survive too well when they were mass produced in concrete pens. Reservations were devastating for tribal people’s health. Penney read me some of his work from graduate school, where he first drew the connection between reservations and hatcheries.

ZP: Indian reservations, like hatcheries, can have negative effects on their residents. We get a loss of connectivity. So, poverty came with the reservations. We were forced to live away from our salmon and other resources. Diabetes — tribes have some of the highest prevalence of diabetes in the world. My dad has diabetes. Heart disease, alcoholism, and drug abuse — these are things that were put onto a lot of the Indian people.

TS: He said tribes don’t want salmon produced for them like it’s government cheese. They want to be able to live their customs and culture. Tribes have gone to great lengths to put fish back in the rivers. And they’re not the only ones who suffer when the fish disappear.


TS: A while back, Randy got a little frustrated with me when he heard me on a radio news segment. I’d said something about how tribes wanted to recover salmon because they need fish to exercise their treaty rights. No, Randy told me. It’s not just about them. That’s too shortsighted.

RS: But that’s not the issue. The issue here is all these trees, all these living creatures, they’re only here because the salmon brought the nutrients in from the ocean and all these living creatures — the bears, the raccoons, the birds — they spread these important minerals that came from the salmon, from the ocean, that enabled all these trees to grow, for this land to be what it is today. And how’s it gonna continue?

TS: This reminds me of some eagles that nest near Randy’s house. When I was over, we’d often see them outside the sliding glass door that overlooks the river.

TS (on tape): That’s one right there. That’s a big bird.

RS: Where do you see it?

TS (on tape): Oh, I don’t see it anymore, but it had just spread its wings…

RS: Oh, yeah. Right there. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. That’s definitely an eagle. He sees something.

TS: They nest in some trees Randy’s mother planted. She used fish guts as fertilizer. Now, Randy watches the birds eat from the river.

RS: One day I was sitting here drinking coffee, and it was in the morning, and these eagles were coming around like that. And one of ‘em stopped like that and he went and he dove right into the water and went under the water and he came out and he had a large steelhead about that big. And he brought the fish up on the rocks and the fish was still quivering. And he held the head part of the fish down like that and he went and he cut the fish in half with one stroke, with his talon. And he was eating, eating, eating, eating on that for about five minutes. He took off and he flew across the river and he glided all the way over there without even flapping. And he landed there on the rock. He grabbed the other section of the fish and he made his journey back. It was quite a sight to see. I’ve seen it many times. It’s all living creatures that are dependent upon the salmon for the quality of life that’s out in this river, that affects all those species, whether it’s orcas, whether it’s the hake, whether it’s sea lions, whether it’s seals, whether it’s eagles. At some point in time, it’s gonna affect all those living creatures, just like it’s gonna affect the human population.

TS: Salmon aren’t leaving restaurant menus any time soon. Hatcheries still put plenty of salmon into the ocean, even if they don’t make it back to the rivers. Seafood companies also farm salmon. These are essentially factory farms in the water, where the fish spend their whole life in a cage. Heck, scientists can even grow a pretty convincing salmon filet from cells in a laboratory. But the fight for salmon isn’t about making sure we have cheap filets of pink fish. It’s about restoring the cycle — from the stream to the ocean and back — that’s made this place into what we know. Remember that exercise at the start of this episode, when we played a note for every salmon in the Columbia River? Back before white people began messing with the river, it sounded like this:

[ data sonification of 16 million fish ]

TS: Today, it sounds like this:

[ data sonification of 1 million fish ]

TS: The salmon didn’t disappear on their own. It didn’t just happen. So, who killed all the fish? That’s next time on “Salmon Wars.”

View all episodes of the “Salmon Wars” podcast here.