BONNEVILLE DAM, Wash. — The tiny fish-counting station, with its window onto the Columbia River, was darkened so the migrating salmon would not be spooked. And it was silent — until the shimmering bodies began to flicker by.
Then the room erupted with loud clicks, as Janet Dalen’s fingers flew across her stumpy keyboard. Tallying the darting specimens, she chanted and chortled, her voice a cross between fish whisperer and aquatic auctioneer. Her body swayed from left to right. Her tightly curled bangs never moved.
“Come on, come on, come on,” Dalen urged, as she recorded chinook and steelhead, sockeye and coho. “Treat the fish counter nice. Keep going, sweetheart. That’s a good girl.… Pretty boy! Salute to the king! He’s a dandy. Beautiful, beautiful. Lotta fun. Just can’t beat it. An amazing year.”
A record fall run of chinook salmon is heading up the Columbia River — more than any year since the Bonneville Lock and Dam was built in 1938, impeding natural access to the prized fish’s traditional spawning grounds and stirring a controversy that has yet to abate.
On Tuesday, the millionth adult chinook salmon so far this year migrated upstream through the massive dam, a milestone that had never before been reached. Biologists are talking hopefully of a fall season that alone could also crest the million mark. On Sept. 9, fish counters like Dalen tallied a one-day record of 63,870.
“Is this something to celebrate? Absolutely,” said Sara Thompson, spokeswoman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, a coalition of the Yakama, Warm Springs, Umatilla and Nez Perce tribes. “But this is one population of salmon. There is still more work to do.”
Salmon form the backbone of the tribal culture and economy in the Pacific Northwest and southeastern Alaska. They are also crucial for commercial and recreational fishermen. The dam generates hydropower for the region and parts of California. Balancing the competing needs is a daunting task.
This year’s robust fall chinook salmon run has increased calls to remove some wild salmon populations from endangered species lists, but it has done little to quell opposition to the series of dams on the Columbia and its tributaries.
“This is a good news story for the fish and fishermen with the fall chinook return,” said Joseph Bogaard, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon. “But you can’t lose sight of the fact that there are 13 distinct populations of salmon that remain at risk” in the Columbia and Snake rivers, listed as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The reasons for this year’s fall chinook run are more complex than mysterious.
Biologists for the tribes; the Bonneville Power Administration, which owns and markets the power generated by the dam; and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates the dam; cite a number of interrelated factors.
Much work has been done to make the turbines, which generate the power, safer for juvenile fish to pass through, said Kevin Wingert, a BPA spokesman. Other measures include structures that allow fish to pass the dam at more natural and safer depths.
Spawning areas have been cleared of debris and invasive species. Ocean conditions in recent years have been favorable for the salmon’s survival, with low temperatures and abundant food.
And since 2006, the agencies involved in operating the Columbia’s dams have been under court order to increase so-called spill, the amount of water going over the dams during spring and summer, flushing young salmon away from the turbines and out toward the ocean.
But critics say a draft management plan under review for Columbia River salmon and their cousins the steelhead would allow dam operators to curtail spill, the very thing these critics say has aided fish.
“The draft so far discounts or eliminates spill, one of the few things we know actually works,” said Glen Spain, northwest regional director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Assns. “What we need to do is not just rejoice when the salmon runs are good but fix the conditions that would lead to salmon extinction in the river when ocean conditions are bad.”
But Ben Hausmann, fisheries biologist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the idea was to curtail the spill only after the fish numbers dropped past a certain point for three days running, “a signal that the out-migration of fish has ended.”
The Northern California fall chinook run is also expected to be healthy this year. A federal judge in Fresno ruled in August that stored water must be released to improve conditions for the fish in the Klamath River instead of being diverted to Central Valley farmers.
The release has alleviated concerns about a possible fish kill like the one that shut down the salmon fishing season from Monterey Bay to the Oregon-Washington border in 2006.
The Columbia River controversy aside, Hausmann and his colleagues at Bonneville seemed a little stunned last week by the record numbers. The fish counters could barely keep up.
Like psychiatrists, they work in 50-minute sessions in the dark little room filled with aquatic accouterments. Dalen, with 14 years of experience, had her best hour ever recently when she tallied 3,483 adult chinook.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she marveled during a brief break in the action. “I remember good hours of about 2,000.”
The 10-year average for adult chinook on Sept.17 is a measly 7,157; five years ago, that daily total was only 4,451. But on this day, during this banner run, Dalen and other counters tallied 18,896.
She scrutinized the glowing window as another cluster of fish swam by. A few, tired, were pushed back downstream. When that happens, Dalen must subtract them from the running total.
“Ooh, a beautiful steelhead. Oh, what a beauty,” she exclaimed before the fish was pushed backward, and she changed her tune.
“Oh, you stinker. Make up your mind — up or downstream, girlfriend. Your swimsuit looks great.”