Have you ever wondered just how that salmon got to your table at the restaurant, or in the grocery store, or on your barbecue at home? Salmon not only have to swim through a lot of water, both fresh and salt, but a lot of regulations as well. But those regulations protect them, ensuring there will be salmon for future generations.

The following outlines how conservation of salmon works, particularly for the Columbia River, the greatest salmon river of them all. It covers a century and a half of how people have coped with changes in the natural environment, fluctuations in fish populations, ocean conditions, pollution, control of fishing operations, as well as a host of other issues, by developing laws and structures that help ensure their survival.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the states of Oregon and Washington each managed its own fisheries in the Columbia River. In order to more effectively manage Columbia River fisheries, both states passed legislation establishing a bi-state compact to manage Columbia River fisheries together in 1915. As required by Article 1, Section 10 of the U.S. Constitution, Congress ratified the resulting Columbia River Compact in 1918.

Columbia River fisheries are managed concurrently under the Columbia River Compact by the joint management staffs of the Oregon and Washington Departments of Fish and Wildlife. Most of the Columbia River is under concurrent jurisdiction. For treaty tribal fisheries, the Columbia River Treaty Tribes are co-managers through the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. The Columbia River Compact also is advised by the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, National Marine Fisheries Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Fishery management on the Columbia River can be quite complex. Thirteen stocks of salmonids in the Columbia River Basin are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. And since multiple salmonid stocks run at the same time, all Columbia River fisheries are mixed-stock fisheries. The aim of orderly fishery management is to conserve weak stocks, and to target abundant hatchery stocks and healthy wild stocks. Listed stocks and other stocks of concern are defined as bycatch. Unintended deaths of bycatch are known as “impacts.” Each fishery is allocated a certain percentage of impacts. When you use up your quota of impacts, you’re done. Fishing season is over.

Since the early 1970s, steelhead have been defined as a game fish. Retention of steelhead is prohibited in commercial fisheries. The objective for commercial fisheries is to avoid handling them in the first place. During the mark-selective fishery for spring Chinook, test fishing determines when winter steelhead abundance is low, and adipose fin-clipped spring Chinook abundance is high.

Most hatchery fish are marked as hatchery fish by an adipose fin-clip. The presence of an adipose fin means the fish is regarded as wild, and may not be retained under mark-selective regulations. During the fall Chinook season, big mesh gear is sized so that summer steelhead, which are more torpedo-shaped than fall Chinook, swim right through the net, thus limiting directly handling steelhead. It is arguably better not to handle fish you can’t keep, rather than handling them, and risking subjecting them to release mortalities.

Under former Oregon Gov. Kitzhaber’s plan for fishery reform, impacts formerly allocated to the commercial fishery have been incrementally transferred to the recreational fishery. But this did not increase participation in recreational fishing. Instead, participation in recreational fishing in the Columbia River has actually decreased below levels that existed before the Kitzhaber plan began to be implemented.

Since limiting impacts for the commercial fishery decreases the amount of target species available for harvest, fewer locally sourced fish are provided for the fish consuming public to buy. The result has been hatchery surpluses and over-escapement to the spawning grounds. The populations of Washington and Oregon are growing, and demand for locally sourced salmon has never been higher. The result of the Kitzhaber plan is mismatch between supply and demand, and wasted fish that used to be available for consumers to buy.

Hobe Kytr is Salmon For All’s administrator.

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