Wild Salmon And Tribal Fish Destruction

Hatcheries are death on wild salmon. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Indian Iron Curtain surrounds wild salmon and tribal policy and fishery management. Nearly every tribe in the Pacific Northwest says things like “salmon are sacred,”  and they typically assert that salmon are critical to their culture.

The problem is that while there is some overlap between saving salmon for cultural practices, it’s not the same as saving wild salmon for their own value. The controversy over tribal salmon issues is more of an anthropogenic concern. It’s all about “me”–what can the tribe garner in more salmon (not necessarily wild salmon)– instead of what is good for wild salmon. An example is the Lummi tribe that is increasing salmon numbers so tribal members can catch more fish. Yes the Lummi advocate better habitat protection and other measures, but ultimately this can also be interpreted as providing more salmon to the tribe.

One of the most blatant examples of the conflict between rhetoric and behavior can be seen in the issue of hatcheries and their impact on wild fish.

Despite much rhetoric from tribes that they are “salmon people” and other assertions that salmon are “sacred” and critical to their culture, most tribes support hatchery production of salmon and steelhead and condemn any attempt to close hatcheries.

Yet the science is overwhelming—nothing is worse for wild salmon than hatchery fish. Hatchery fish breed with wild salmon, diluting the wild genome and competing for space, food, and even spawning habitat.

After fish stocking was halted on Oregon’s Metolius River, production of wild fish increased.

Hatchery production can disguise the decline in natural fish production (wild fish) and reduce the public outcry for more scientific salmon policies.

There are plenty of state and federal hatcheries, so the constructoin and production of hatchery fish is not unique to tribes. But most of these entities do not claim that salmon are “sacred” or critical to cultural values.

The other way that many tribes harm wild salmon is by gill netting. Due to “tribal sovereignty and treaty rights,” tribes can gill net fish on major rivers like the Columbia, Klamath, and others. Gill nets are entirely indiscriminate. Many wild fish are captured in the nets and die.

Most tribes say they want to restore “healthy salmon populations,” but this doesn’t necessarily mean healthy wild fish populations.

A dam on the Columbia River, one of the many factors leading to salmon decline. Photo George Wuerthner 

While there are numerous reasons for salmon declines, including dams, livestock grazing, logging, and climate change, the promotion of hatchery production and the gill netting of wild salmon contribute to the loss of wild salmon populations.

Logging as seen here on the Quinault Indian Reservation on Olympic Peninsula is one of the other threats to wild salmon. Photo George Wuerthner 

Most media have little understanding of salmon ecology and issues. If tribes promote hatcheries, the media usually reports it as a favorable policy.

Why would tribes who say they love salmon continue practices harming wild salmon? Again, follow the money. Tribes are permitted to sell fish they catch.

The pursuit of salmon restoration also gives tribal people more power and control over natural resources–which in many instances is favorable towards salmon recovery. However, as with the issue of hatchery production, tribal interests are not necessarily the same as the public interest or the interest of wildlife.


For decades, salmon activists have sought to remove four dams on the Snake River (a tributary of the Columbia) to open up spawning habitat in Idaho, including on the namesake Salmon River.

The Snake River in Hells Canyon. Photo George Wuerthner 

Recently, the Columbia River tribes, including the Yakima, Nez Perce, Umatilla, and Warm Springs, agreed to accept a billion dollars from the federal government if they would rescind their lawsuit that advocates the removal of the Snake River Dams. Among other things, the money will be used by the tribes to improve hatchery production. Nothing in the agreement ensures the dams will be removed, and in the opinion of friends who have worked on salmon recovery for decades, this appears to be a buyout of tribal interests.

I have not been following the Snake River dams issue closely, but one friend who is a fishery biologist and has been a wild salmon advocate for decades and supports breaching the dams had this to say about the recent agreement.

“You should look into the latest announcement from the Biden administration about the Snake River dams. It has received a lot of press lately as a positive step but it’s mostly BS as far as I can tell. There is NO commitment to breaching the dams, only to spend a lot more on studying the issue and hundreds of millions on hatcheries. A previous agreement in Sept. already gave hundreds of millions to Columbia River tribes to build hatcheries. As you would expect, the tribes are vocal in their support of all of this.”

Another salmon advocate had this to say about the Biden and tribe agreement: “The Biden Administration totally screwed up. Instead of using executive authority to breach the dams they punted the issue to Congress. Congress will never authorize the breaching, certainly not in time to save the fish and orcas. The Tribes got bought off, as did many of the NGOs.”


The Elwha River after dam removal. Photo George Wuerthner 

When the federal government removed two dams from the Elwha River in Olympic NP, the National Park Service advocated for natural salmon recovery. The NPS felt there was still enough wild salmon stock in the lower river to ensure wild fish recovery beyond the broached dams. However, the Elwha tribe opposed this part of the plan and insisted on building a hatchery at the mouth of the river (with taxpayer money, of course).


Rafters on the Klamath River, California. Photo George Wuerthner 

There has been an effort to remove four dams on the Klamath River in northern California. The dams harm salmon in numerous ways, including blocking access to upstream spawning habitat. The removal of the dams has begun.

Most media reporting on salmon and tribes emphasize the cultural connection, rarely mentioning the commercial reason for promoting salmon recovery. The general narrative of most media reporting is on how important salmon are to tribal culture but fails to mention how tribal cultural interests can threaten wild salmon recovery.

As with salmon in other parts of the West,  commercial salmon catch also harms wild salmon since most salmon are taken with indiscriminate gill nets. Wild salmon are caught along with hatchery salmon. Since most tribes commercially fish for salmon, they are incentivized to increase overall salmon production with hatcheries, compromising the wild salmon stock.

Yet many tribes along the Klamath, such as the Yurok Tribe, sell wild salmon. Given how rare the salmon are, taking any endangered species, especially for commercial use, would seem counterproductive if you call salmon “sacred.”

In particular, coho salmon in the Klamath River are barely hanging. Salmon advocates (which is distinctively different from tribal advocates) believe a total moratorium on all fishing is the best way to bring about wild salmon recovery. However, as a generalization, the tribes oppose such a policy.


The North Umpqua is a stonghold for wild steelhead, however continued hatchery production championed by tribal interests is a threat to the wild fish. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw, Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, Coquille Indian Tribe, and Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde all opposed the closure of a hatchery on the North Umpqua River by the Oregon Fish and Game Commission. The commission sees hatchery fish as competitors with wild fish for spawning habitat.


Tribal fish farms in Skagit Bay threaten wild salmon. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Jamestown S’Kallam Tribe has agreed to develop fish farming in Skagit Bay, Washington. Fish farming is notorious for its environmental harm, including dumping vast amounts of feces and antibiotics in affected waterways.


The above examples demonstrate that promoting tribal cultural values doesn’t necessarily lead to ecological values. While tribes are not monthetic and there is great diversity of viewpoints regarding environmental issues, many tribes will go for the gold ($$$) if there is an opportunity to reap financial rewards. Certainly one could argue that hatcheries are only one of many threats to wild salmon. But hatcheries are also one of the easist threats to eliminate. Yet any criticism of tribes is considered racism.  The WOKE left, which includes most conservation groups these days,  are unwilling to criticize tribal policies that harm wildlands or wildlife, to the detriment of things wild and free. The issue of tribal hatchery production and its impacts on wild salmon is a good example of this problem.


  1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
    Jeff Hoffman

    Well, there are still some of us real Earth First!ers left, and we are neither woke nor left. We advocate uncompromisingly for the Earth and all the life here, not for tribes or their people.

    Another issue here is that it’s only TRADITIONAL indigenous people who are true environmental advocates or conservationists, whatever you want to call us. There are very few traditional natives left in the U.S., so what we’re dealing with here is the “progressives,” which is the opposite of what it means (or used to mean before Trump) regarding the general population. Native progressives want to assimilate into the American/European culture and be just like the colonizers.

    What this story shows is that all humans can be evil. The problem is the human psyche, not who our ancestors were, what genes we have, or the color of our skin. Those of us who advocate for wild nature are very few and far between among all groups, and now unfortunately it looks like that’s true for the native tribes as well.

  2. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    What a disappointment. Political buyoffs are the sleaziest things, and I don’t like hatcheries because they also lead to more killing of wildlife like birds and marine mammals.

    I know some dam removals are underway (Klamath River), and California has some scheduled for removal, so maybe things will change some once they are complete?

    The dominant culture rule has also maybe forced some native people into going along to do the best they can? There is still a lot of opposition to dam removal. I hope that will change.

    Long live the salmon!

  3. Craig B Lacy Avatar
    Craig B Lacy

    Unfortunately, the lawsuit did not specifically ask for the breaching of the lower Snake River dams.
    “Recently, the Columbia River tribes, including the Yakima, Nez Perce, Umatilla, and Warm Springs, agreed to accept a billion dollars from the federal government if they would rescind their lawsuit that advocates the removal of the Snake River Dams.”
    I thought this article was excellent and will be passing it along to many of the folks who want to “Breach Now”

  4. lou Avatar

    Not only are the salmon said to be sacred to the tribes, the tribes are now sacred too. Regardless of what they do. I have been watching the coverage of the dam removals in WA and CA and the media gives all the credit to tribes, as if they are the sole owners of and only interested parties in the results and the salmon. Fed up with this.

    This pendulum has swung too far. Tribes are composed of modern humans and they should not be dictating policy and practice for native plants and ecosystems. They should be playing by the same rules as all the other people in this country, who also have rights. This hatchery practice tells us who they are. And they are not in the right here. Thanks for blowing whistle on it.

  5. Ballard Avatar

    More ignorant and divisive drivel as usual from this writer—much like his anti-tribal wolf rant. You know what’s really the worst thing for wild salmon? Over a century of habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation by human development that continues widely unchecked today. Tribes are sovereign nations, fisheries co-managers exercising treaty rights upheld by the Supreme Court, and leaders in advocating for habitat restoration and sustainable fisheries management. Unless a few hundred million of us move back to Europe or wherever our ancestors came from, hatcheries will forever be part of the portfolio of modern salmon and steelhead management. They should be well managed, just like fisheries. Respect the tribes, honor the treaties.

  6. Monica Siegel Avatar
    Monica Siegel

    We all need stand together and fight this destroying wild life and nature. Our government lets this happen I am so disappointed with our world and nothing gets done. Keep fighting for stronger laws.

    1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
      Jeff Hoffman

      The government won’t help by passing stronger laws; it’s in the pocket of the big corporations and the rich that profit off all the destruction. Corporations running the government is literally what fascism is, though most people don’t know that. The U.S. has been fascist for a long time, but it just gets worse as time goes on.

      Regular people are a problem too, as they’re totally willing to allow all this death and destruction so they can have their modern lifestyles, luxuries, and conveniences.

      The fight is for the hearts and minds of the human race. If we continue to lose that fight, we won’t win any other important ones.

  7. Bill McMillan Avatar
    Bill McMillan

    The article is a little too simplistic in some ways, but is otherwise one of the most important articles I have seen pointing out the disconnect of all too many tribes from their cultural past. Indeed, they have all too often come to repeat the worst that American history has done to salmon, rather than represent the best of their own past in its reverence of Nature that we took away from them. Wildlife News and the author are to be commended for the honesty of publishing this article. It is a side of this issue few have had the courage to cover. With climate change alone, and what we all continue to do in lives that have led to climate change, the salmon future is bleak enough without continuing the errors of our salmon management past long focused on hatcheries and profiteering off natural resources. I had long hoped the tribes would do better, and strongly supported their fishing rights in a 1981 Senate Testimony. I have never regretted supporting their legal rights, but all too often their subsequent part in salmon management has been a great disappointment. They, like all of us, need to do better.

  8. Mary Avatar

    “Why would tribes who say they love salmon continue practices harming wild salmon? Again, follow the money. Tribes are permitted to sell fish they catch.”

    The math on this is inexorable: Millions of people buy ro want to buy salmon. That certainly wasn’t true when indigenous peoples lived on the land before Europeans.

    It is an endless market, with aging populations being told how important fatty fish, including especially salmon, will help keep them healthy.

    Suggested solution: Ban selling of salmon except for maybe one fish per person per year. Some rule that doesn’t permit the wholesale decimation of salmon.

    Salmon populations in, for example, the Tuolumne River watershed, are at best ONE-TENTH of their historical numbers before Europeans.

    Given the many other stresses these fish are under due to human activity and global warming, how will selling them for food help?

    How long before they are gone altogether?

    1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
      Jeff Hoffman

      There are a lot of issues regarding the colonizer-caused collapse of the salmon population, but here we’re discussing the hatchery problem. Even one of those damn things is too many, and they should be outright banned.

      As to salmon, dam(n)s are the biggest problem, blocking their natural migration and breeding routes. Then we have overfishing, which is driven by human overpopulation of the consumers combined with greed of the fishing industry. Logging is also very harmful to salmon, because the waterways that become exposed to sunlight after logging get too warm for salmon.

      As with every other ecological and environmental problem, the physical root causes here are human overpopulation and wrongful lifestyles/overconsumption. Regarding this article, the wrongful lifestyle/overconsumption is fish hatcheries.

      1. Mary Avatar


        The idea is that if you’re not allowed to sell a product, how its made becomes less attractive. Isn’t part of the reason many want hatcheries that they are a source of income?

        1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
          Jeff Hoffman

          Yes. Whatever works I guess. My focus is on Life, which includes ALL naturally-occurring things/beings like the Earth, it’s ecosystems, and all the native species here. I couldn’t care less about money, though I understand the undue and corrupting influence/power that it has.

          1. Mary Avatar

            I really care about Life as well– and always wonder, what could incentivize people to change what they’re doing for the betterment of wildlife?

            Sometimes, how could people see that whatever change it is, benefits them as well? OR– could there be something else that could help those people in a different but equally valued way– that would help them change?

            1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
              Jeff Hoffman

              Tapping into people’s unevolved instincts like greed, materialism, and ego will ultimately make things worse. What we need is to change people’s hearts and minds. People need to evolve mentally and spiritually so that they stop obsessing on unevolved things like those I mentioned, and instead focus on expanding their consciousnesses, which necessarily includes expanding their wisdom and empathy. See this book outline for details: https://rewilding.org/fixing-humans-by-expanding-our-consciousness/

              1. Mary Avatar

                An example of conservation that worked, where local people became engaged: the endemic parrot of St. Lucia was saved.

                Re human overpopulation, it’s been known since at least 1979 that if women and girls get education and family planning with healthcare and contraception– they choose to delay and have fewer children. In the meantime they contribute to their community; when ready, children are planned for and wanted. Each person on their own decides if, when, and how many children they have.

                While seemingly daunting to implement worldwide, try one country at a time. Example: Brazil. As expected, with no dictates, reproduction is significantly lessened.



George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner