by Scott Sadil
In a recent review of 2022 fish and wildlife news by Andy Walgamott of Northwest Sportsman magazine, I couldn’t help but notice the number of items citing stories about the spread of invasive species.
For example, in May the magazine reported that a European green crab had been found in Hood Canal, the farthest south the species has been caught in the Northwest’s Salish Sea after first being discovered in Willapa Bay and Gray’s Harbor, along the Washington coast, in 1998, and on the Vancouver Island side of the Strait of San Juan de Fuca in 2012.
“The worry,” writes Walgamott, “is that green crabs could alter native ecosystems.”
That’s putting it mildly. The crab gained a foothold in New England and the Canadian Maritime provinces in the 1800s and has been blamed for the the collapse of the soft-shell clam industry in Maine. It stands to threaten the Dungeness crab, oyster, and clam fisheries and aquaculture operations throughout the Pacific Northwest. Over a nineteen year study, concluding in 2020, Oregon’s Coos Bay was found to have an established—and increasing—population. By November of last year, efforts at eradication removed nearly 270,000 European crabs from Washington state waters, a record-breaking annual amount that nobody feels will do more than, at best, keep the unwanted crustacean from destroying native populations.
To anyone even remotely interested in the scale of damage possible to native ecosystems, including fisheries, upon introduction of invasive species, I would recommend reading Dan Egan’s The Death and Life of the Great Lakes. The stories are shocking – Zebra and Quagga mussels changing the very chemistry of the water, while disrupting a food chain already skewed beyond recognition by overzealous or misguided or short-sighted fisheries managers.
Invasive fish species, not surprisingly, also find their way into Walgamott’s 2022 review. Most startling, probably, is the spread of walleye up the Snake River, now caught in record numbers above Lower Granite Dam and as far upriver as the Swan Falls Dam, as well as 80 miles up the Salmon River, that most important tributary of the Snake.
A walleye was first trapped in a Snake River dam fish ladder in 2016; their rapid, inexorable spread speaks directly to the degradation of water quality inherent to a chain of slackwater reservoirs in contrast to what you find in a free-flowing river. Walleye, of course, are predaceous; in their native range they rely on forage minnows and other prolific small fish. In the absence of those prey, they feed on salmon and steelhead smolts.
Walleye. Smallmouth bass. Six million shad: the Columbia River basin is, quite literally, overrun with exotic, invasive species of fish. Some anglers, in the face of this changing landscape, go right on fishing, adopting a stoic attitude that would have made Sitting Bull proud: “When the buffalo are gone, we will hunt mice, for we are hunters and we want our freedom.”
And how bad is it, really, when, after a few slow years, albacore tuna off the Northwest coast “caught fire,” Walgamott reports. No mention is made, however, how strange it seems to some of us that the albacore sport fishery is now in these local waters, while it no longer exists in, say, San Diego, where my father and grandfather used to go out on day-and-a-half charter boats and return with enough tuna to fill a shelf or two after my mother finished canning.
Or this: Walgamott mentions that on one of the Northwest albacore boats this summer, an angler hooked and landed a dorado. That’s right, a mahi-mahi, dolphinfish, Coryphaena hippurus, call it what you will.
It’s hard to know what to do with news like that. One suggestion comes from Robert Lackey, longtime professor at Oregon State University, who has argued that runs of wild salmon throughout the Pacific Northwest have not only collapsed, but they have virtually no chance of recovering. His reasoning? For the past 150 years, public policy has worked against wild salmon. Canning technology promoted overharvest. Dams were built to irrigate the West. Hydroelectric power was needed for the aluminum to build planes to fight a war. A hatchery industry was developed to mitigate the loss of spawning habitat caused by dams. Hatcheries, say scientists, harm wild salmon and steelhead runs.
Those are just the broad brush strokes. Extirpated in nearly thirty percent of their historic range, with run sizes less than five percent of what they were just 200 years ago, wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest, argues Lackey, are very unlikely to recover. In the face of societal costs that salmon recovery would demand of the public today, Lackey suggests that, given the remarkable numbers of American shad now running up the Columbia each summer, we change their name to American salmon and “declare victory.”
That’s harsh. I wish I had the evidence to prove him wrong.
For more on Lackey’s reasons why he feels that runs of Pacific Northwest salmon are all but doomed, you can listen to his talk at https://media.oregonstate.edu/media/t/1_xcus7y97.
Gray’s angling editor Scott Sadil is sad to report he caught but one wild steelhead in 2022.