Salmon and Indigenous people have always been interconnected. Both have faced many obstacles over the last century primarily because the knowledge of First Nations was not heard and they were stripped of much of their culture, including their once bountiful resource of salmon. Times are changing and it is long overdue. The voice of the Indigenous people no longer falls on deaf ears.
In 2019 the Secwépemc (Shuswap), Syiilx Okagnagan and the Ktunaxa (Akisqnuk) First Nations partnered with the government of British Columbia and Canada to form the visionary agreement of the Indigenous-led Columbia River Salmon Reintroduction Initiative (CRSRI) colloquially known as Bringing the Salmon Home.“In July 2019 we signed a three year, 2.5 million-dollar-commitment at the possibility of bringing salmon back into the Columbia River,” says Mark Thomas of the Secwépemc (Shuswap) Nation and Chair of the Executive Working Group for the Bringing the Salmon Home Festival.
“What is happening now is we have three studies that have been initiated by the three different Indigenous Nations, they include feasibility, habitat, and water quality studies,” says Thomas. “This will all work towards the possibility of bringing the salmon home going forward and will also make sure that the habitat and where the salmon are returning to are suitable for them. This will include ensuring interactions with other existing fish in the system and protecting them from any disease or parasites that may be out there.”
While efforts have already begun on the US side of the border, Thomas shares that the actual scientific transplants on the Canadian side of the Columbia River will still take some time. There has already been some activity of the Tribal-led work that has been taking place on the U.S. side which is called Phase 2. “Some of those fish have already crossed the border and have shown up on some of our monitoring stations,” says Thomas.
A big part of bringing the salmon home is educating and informing the public about what is happening and the steps that are being taken to do so; this was the intention of the second annual virtual Bringing Home the Salmon festival which took place earlier this week on Tuesday and Wednesday. The public is encouraged to sign up for CRSRI’s monthly newsletter.
“We’ll inform the public, and what they can do to either lobby their local politician or other groups that can advocate for the importance of salmon and the benefits they will bring to the basin,” says Thomas. “Those salmon have had a huge impact on so many, like our people the Shuswap. It’s not only going to bring back culture and language for the Indigenous people, but it will also bring plenty of ecological and social benefits for fisheries and for those that like to go out and fish that will have the opportunity once again to catch salmon that swim up the upper Columbia.”
Columbia River has more dams than any other in North America which has been a major factor for salmon swimming through obstacles. The Columbia and Fraser River in British Columbia are both known for its decline in salmon over the years. Earlier this month for the first time in over a hundred years a 30-metre-wide opening in the Fraser River’s North Arm Jetty allowed juvenile Chinook salmon to pass through the breach. Before this obstruction millions of salmon used to swim out of the Lower Fraser River to the Strait of Georgia.
In March the Raincoast Conservation Foundation led a project to breach the North Arm Jetty, a barrier stretching seven kilometres long ranging from the Vancouver International Airport to the University of British Columbia. Nuzzled behind this barrier sits a marsh habitat, vital for juvenile salmon to rear and feed in before transitioning into the salty waters of the Pacific Ocean. “That was an easy fix, and it is a bit distressing that such a simple project took 100 years to fix,” says Ben Mitchell-Banks conservationist and manager of the Abel Creek Restoration Project. “The challenges on the Columbia River are momentous in comparison."
Salmon and other anadromous fish were prevented from accessing their spawning grounds in the upper Columbia with the continued construction of dams downstream. The last salmon here would have been sometime between 1942 -1960. Salmon were in sharp decline after 1938 with the completion of the Bonneville Dam; subsequent dams eliminated access to the upper Columbia for salmon.”
The shortage of fish making their way to the upper Columbia impacts us all in ways we may not even think about. Thomas asks people to think about that feeling one gets when they are standing at the edge of a river and have their son, daughter, grandchild, or any child in their life with them at their side, as that child catches their first fish.
“It instills a great pride in you that you taught that child something,” says Thomas. “When they pull that fish out of the water with a big smile on their face, and they just glow. That is the power you have of passing on knowledge. We have to do that, that’s our job. That is why oral traditions and history is something that is so important to us, and that we can pass it down.”
It has been 82 years since salmon have flourished in the Upper Columbia River which Thomas stresses steals the basin’s richness but through the efforts of the Bringing Home the Salmon initiative and others getting involved to advocate or do their part, the salmon are sure to have a more promising future compared to their recent past.
Chadd Cawson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Columbia Valley Pioneer