Fished to Death

A Californian born and bred, CLARK C. VAN FLEET has been fishing the streams of the West Coast for going on five decades. A conservationist at heart, he has noted the steady decline in the salmon migration; he has seen thousands of fish dashed to death at the bases of great new dams and been revolted by the ruthlessness of the trawler and the canner. Extinction, he says, can come easily when Americans grow careless of the future. Readers will recall Mr. Van Fleet’s articles on the steelhead trout which appeared in our August and September issues.



THE earliest explorers, trappers, voyageurs, and settlers who crossed the Pacific Divide and wandered along the West Coast found a land literally overflowing with fur and game, but. in all their experience they had never seen streams with such an abundance of fish life as those that flow into the sea lapping the Pacific shore. During the migration season hordes of huge fish crowded every river; the tributaries down to the tiniest brook found embattled thousands making their way to the headwaters, where they filled the pools and foamed every riffle.

With the Indian tribes in this Far Western country, the dried flesh of the salmon was the principal article of commerce. This found its way into the remote interior as a staple of trade with all the mountain tribes. Along the gorges of the Fraser, at Wishram and Celilo Falls on the Columbia, Reamy Falls on the Rogue, and Ishi-Pishi on the Klamath, preferred rocks or crags fronting the narrows or falls were possessions far more prized by the plains clans than their herds of horses. Rights to these locations were passed from generation to generation within the family and guarded most jealously, even unto death, by the proud inheritors. Settlements of disputes on this subject were only adjudicated in full tribal council.

The early settler, encroaching on the lush lands of adjacent valleys, found these fish a welcome addition to his diet. As his livestock increased and the yield of his fields decreased from constant planting, it was common practice to haul a wain to the creekside during the height of the spawning season and pitchfork a wagonload of salmon from the pools and riffles, either to feed to the hogs or fertilize the fields. That they died in stinking windrows along the shores of the creeks and rivers was sufficient justification, and nobody cared anyway, since millions came every year to replace the paltry thousands cast on the bank by the farmer’s labor.

As settlements became more permanent, attention was soon turned to these enormous runs of delicious fish as a source of wealth. Canneries blossomed along the banks of every main river, and thousands of people were employed in devious methods to supply the necessary tonnage to keep the cookers going day and night at the height of the season. Traps, weirs, set nets, seines, trawls, and various other cunning devices were placed in operation to yield the never ending stream of shining bodies that were converted into lumps of red flesh exactly fitting the endless chain of tin containers. From the cookers, the cans soon circled the globe and found their way, as a prime delicacy, to the tables of rich and poor alike.

For a full generation this harvest of fine red meat continued; the fisheries of Alaska were discovered and their prodigious output was added to the flood. Yet by the turn of the century came certain indications that all was not well.

California was the first to hit the toboggan. Runs on the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers fell off alarmingly. One large packer moved his establishment from Black Diamond on the Sacramento to Monterey Bay. From there, for a few years, the troll boats kept the cannery in fair operation but it soon became necessary to supplement the supply as the salmon continued to decline. The operator turned to anchovies and practically gave up the vanishing salmon to build a fine sardine business, moving the scraps to a modern fertilizer plant from which tons were shipped each year.

Others were not so fortunate. At Eureka and Requa in California, at Wedderburn, Reedsport, and along the coast of Oregon clear to the mouth of the Columbia, canneries were closed or so reduced in volume that their production became negligible and the profits nil. The source of that flood of dollars was vanishing with alarming and accelerating speed; the unbelievable was happening.

Associations were formed, committees were appointed, laws were invoked. The hopeful believed that with a little regulation, a little patience, just a trifle of relief, the days of plenty would return in a short time. Drought, floods, predators of all kinds, from the lowly fish duck to the mighty sea lion, came in for their share of blame and condemnation. Excessive fishing was, of course, pooh-poohed as having an impact on the decline of the enterprise.

The experts who were called in to make recommendations for the improvement of the sick industry were not so sure. They suggested a curtailed season, more moderale catches, and much more generous escapement than in the past. Supplementally, they urged an elaborate program of artificial propagation to increase the number of fish available to the industry. Nature was extremely wasteful in her methods, crowding the redding grounds unduly, allowing disease to wipe out whole acres of beds, permitting predators to take an undue toll of the newly hatched fry; this could all be avoided by artificial rearing to a size at which the young fish coulel take care of themselves. Properly placed hat client’s, moderate escapement of t he mature fish so that the egg-ta king st at ions could gather a harvest, scientific methods of cult lire under sanitary conditions, coulel bring the’ fishery back to its pristine glory. Thai was a surety. On the’ other hand, the set nets, the weirs, the fish traps, those deadly 24-hour destroyers, would have to go.

In spite of anguished protests that even reached the halls of Congress, the State of Washington finally passed the’ necessary legislation. Then for years we had the anomaly of traps legally operating on tin’ Oregon side of the Columbia long after they had been banned and destroyed on the Washington side.

The industry gradually adjusted itself to this newset of conditions. Dependence on salmon wholly for continuous operation gave place to a more varied catch as albacore were discovered off the mouth of the Columbia. Many boats deserted the ranks of the salmon fishers and took to coarse fishing for liver sharks and bottom fish, or even ranged far afield for the halibut grounds off British Columbia and Alaska. Salmon catches were curtailed to a season and quantity more in line with anticipated reproduction. The decline, though it continued, became more gradual.


HE second great blow at the anadromous fish of the Pacific Coast states was not long in coming: ihe development of water power. The same ruthless disregard for anadromous fish movement or preservation was evinced by dam operators or builders as had been shown by the fishing industry but a few short years before. Fish by the thousands died at the foot of the great walls of masonry without completing their life cycle.

Conservationists and sportsmen were prompt to raise a howl and call for protective measures when they beheld the thousands of dying mature fish thrashing themselves to death at the bases of dams t hat allowed no means of passage over t heir massive fronts.

When public clamor became vociferous, plans were worked out by both public and private dam owners to provide proper fishways over these obstructions. This was a point gained, and a very important one, but factually the battle was only half won since the invisible part, the return of the fry to the ocean, was not dealt with at all.

The fry are small and are fairly evenly dlistributed throughout the downward-moving current. Because the movement is not in the nature of a rout but takes place over a period of months, no reasonable provision has ever been made to transport the fry or allow them to find an easy way over these deathtraps. It has been fairly well established that the number of fish passing any dam is in direct ratio to the water volume that passes any given point. Thus only a tithe, and that a very meager one, finds its way through the slot of the fishways provided for the upstream migrants.

Those t hat pass t hrough I he blades of t he t urbine are doomed; those that drifl over the edge of the spillway may survive if the drop of the thundering cataract is into a fairly deep pool and the distance is not too great, though they may be stunned somewhat by the impact. These partially disabled fish are easy prey to enemies congregated below the swirling maelstrom of the outfall. Where the cascade strikes rocks or boulders along the lower face of the dam, the young fish suffer as many casualties as those passing through the machinery of the powerhouse. At Bonneville Dam, which has without doubt the most modern facilities for upstream movement of mature fish, the estimates of losses on down-running fry by the officials in charge are rather vague, ranging from 10 to 15 per cent. Accepting the 15 per cent figure on losses as reasonably accurate, the mortality at Bonneville Dam would not be much short of two million fry, and might reach almost three million.

Just how effectively the progeny of the salmon are raised by artificial means, I am unable to guess. I do know that I am dissatisfied with the whole program of hatchery raising of indigenous trout, and I feel that if more attention were paid to improving environmental conditions on our spawning streams, and less were spent on elaborate reproduction sites and buildings and rearing ponds, the results would be more beneficial.

The native trout in the wild state begin life on plankton. These minute organisms, mostly microscopic, remain their chief source of food for at least the first year of their life, frequently longer. The hatcher-raised specimen is fed chopped meat or other flesh scraps, finely ground, from the time the yolk sac attached to its body is absorbed until its release into some near-by stream. It is said, and m this I strongly concur, that the young fish turned loose in that manner never learns to feed on this major flesh producer for fry, plankton; this is particularly true of fish reared until they reach legal size. Therefore, compared with the stream-born, they do not increase in growth after planting and they are more easily captured by predators since their hunger drives them out into the deeper reaches of the river or brook, where they make an easy victim for the lurking enemy.

In stocking barren lakes or streams that will support fish life, I believe real good is accomplished. For replenishment purposes on waters to which trout are native-born, I am satisfied the results are extremely meager if not entirely abortive. As a rehabilitation measure on anadromous trout streams, it is my conviction that the money is wasted.


UPON the broader aspects of a conservation and rehabilitation program for our Western streams I am certain all can agree. The practice of leaving bare watersheds and streams choked with debris, scoured in winter, dry in summer, is gradually giving way to selected cutting, cleaner slash burning, the setting aside of islands of trees for restocking purposes, and generally better methods in woods operations. Procedures of private owners often leave much to be desired even at this writing, but gradually the suggestions and programs of the Forest Service are carrying more weight and are being adhered to with less opposition.

Pollution is still a sore problem in a great part of the West. Factories, canneries, even municipalities, were originally built to take advantage of flowing water to carry off wastes. They object strenuously to the expense involved, are reluctant to come into line, and are slow to appropriate the necessary funds for the facilities required to eliminate this evil.

There are laws in all the Western states governing proper protection of irrigation ditches. The Game Commission of the State of Oregon has developed an excellent revolving screen which they build in their own factory for use in their own streams and which they sell to other states on request. The laws themselves are quite specific, but are often flouted or ignored in remoter sections or where enforcement officers are complaisant. There are still fields in California that shine each year with layers of rotting fry spread across the fields.

One feature of irrigation that unfortunately receives little attention is the condition of waste water returned to the rivers. Excess seepage at an extremely high temperature is often permitted to return to the stream vitiated of oxygen. Field flooding is practiced at the time of year when this condition is particularly serious since most of the rivers are then at their lowest flow and already warmed to the danger point. The addition in quantity of water at high temperature and with low oxygen content is enough to turn the scales and make the stretches below uninhabitable for trout, ‘file disappearance of the summer steelhead run from the upper Rogue can be attributed mainly to this condition. Whether this ailment could be corrected by more sheltered ditches, baffling at frequent intervals, lengthening of canals, and speedier How can only be determined by experimentation and trial.

I am sure of one thing: that these practices endure and grow from mere nuisances to serious hazards by virtue of our own indifference and passivity. The cure will come when enough people are sufficiently aroused to make their will apparent. In most instances there are ample laws on the statute books. Ordinances and regulations are abundant and clear; their observance is solely a matter of enforcement. If interested people speak up loud enough the proper remedies will be applied.

The iniquities of former days are certainly serious enough in all conscience. Greed, extravagance, waste, and accompanying evils have woefully reduced the rich abundance in the West of yesterday. Yet, even now, all is not lost. I here is still a remnant — in some cases and on particular streams a substantial one — that can be used to increase or at least to sustain our anadromous fish population.

If common sense is used in the construction of further dams; if river systems already barred to the free movement of seagoing salmonoids are fully utilized, instead of seeking new and virgin waters to shut off more and more of their natural highways; if watersheds not yet completely closed to migration are set aside for development and restitution of their spawning tributaries, it will be quite feasible to halt the complete disappearance of these fine fish from our coast, and afford tomorrow’s generation the same enjoyment experienced by our own.

It will be a real battle. The advantages of dam development are very cunningly described by their proponents. The proposals and offerings are set forth with a special eye on those elements in the area most likely to be seduced by propaganda. Avarice of local communities is appealed to by painting in glowing colors the amount of money that will be spent in their fair cities by the builders and their employees. The farmer is tempted by the prospect of cheap power relieved of the clutch of private greed, by the advantages of irrigation, and by the distribution of the cost designed so that the husbandman bears a small portion of the total outlay. The businessman at large sees the chance to develop industry and manufacture and the enhancement of property values as population increases. Labor looks for new jobs. The outdoorsman thinks of the beauty of the lake that will result, the accommodations that will be afforded for fishing and boating, the plantings of fish that will offer easy sport as a substitute for the present arduous tramping over rough trails.


MAN must always be sticking his mischievous fingers between the spokes of nature’s busy wheel, either to speed up its whir or slow it down, even occasionally to stop its revolutions entirely. With wild life the rotation is most delicately balanced and intricately enmeshed in the cycle of all its environmental associates. What appears beneficial and salutary at first blush can disturb some hairtrigger relationship at the far end of the machine, entirely invisible and seemingly unrelated to the change at issue. The gears stripped, the delicate governor disturbed at this remote point can and often does rebound with stunning energy to impede and sometimes destroy the innocent object of those presumed gains. Let me illustrate.

Our coastal streams are notoriously shy of sustained production of food for young fry. Individual creeks and brooks vary, but it can be generally said that the usual cause of early migration by parr to the sea is lack of sufficient food to sustain existence. What then were the conditions that formerly made them so abundant?

The life cycle of the races of Pacific salmon is ended after consummation of sexual transfer on the spawning beds in the native stream. Following the last expulsion of eggs or melt from the body of the mature fish its end is mercifully quick in arriving. The body, having lost 40 to 45 per cent of its weight, drained of every vestige of fat unfed for weeks, with the stomach atrophied, sinks to the bottom of the pool or riffle to remain there until dissolution overtakes it. It is this process of dissolution that interests us.

The skin of the salmon toughens unbelievably after death. No gases form to burst it since there are no inner contents to ferment. The remains therefore last a long, long time, even though attacked by animalcules, a host of underwater nymphs, crawfish, and, last but not least, both salmon fry and trout. The flesh of the disintegrating fish flakes off minutely as the slow process of decay continues; the body is host to a myriad of free swimming and crawling insects all busily engaged in feeding on the carcass. The watchful fisherman will distinguish trout both large and small intermingled with parr salmon, stringing downstream from these remains. At intervals one of the larger trout will swim up and whack the body with its nose, then dash back to position to obtain its share of iht’ bulkier particles or insects thus dislodged; after such a blow, all the gleaners dash to and fro to gulp the floating morsels. Many of these bodies last through the summer and well into the fall, a constant source of food for the growing fry.

When man conceived his plan of artificial propagation, he erected racks across the stream of bis choice well below the tributaries where natural spawning took place, corralled all the salmon headed into that river until they were ripe, then took his toll. A major source of food supply for the remaining fish was thus cut off. The young steelhead left the upper waters before their normal time for lack of sustenance and, because of the diminished store, were often thin and stunted in growth, and thus became an easier prey 1o the virissittides of sea life. The oilier trout as well began to disappear.

Within the last few years, belated recognition of this fact has been taken by the authorities, and a 25 per cent escapement is now permitted at the racks to allow natural spawning by this fragment. It is scarcely adequate, but it is at least a step in the right direct ion. The saving grace as far as steelhead are concerned is the little-known fact that many of them die after their maiden trip to the redding riffles, since mended kclts seem to be but a tithe of the upstream migrants. The physical drain of this nuptial journey is almost as severe on this seagoing trout as on its near cousin. But dying steelhead seem to be notably hardier than dying salmon, so that their losses appear to take place closer to the sea or possibly in sail water itself; though I am of the firm opinion that once they reach the haven of the sea, they normally regain condition speedily. Hence the effect of steelhead losses on stream fodder is negligible. This is only one example of what occurs when man pokes his fingers inlo the wheels of life.

In the development of the Far West we have decimated stream and field. Some whole races have disappeared — for example, the passenger pigeon, the Eskimo curlew, and ihe butterbird — and a host of others have been reduced to a mere vestigial remnant. Unless we are to leave to our descendants a regimented and mainly artificial heritage of outdoor recreation, it behooves us to cheek this decline.

The remedy is in the hands of the people. If they will refuse to be hoodwinked, will pursue a drastic course of action uninfluenced by the barking of nostrum peddlers or the blandishments of seifseekers, I believe much can be accomplished. The sportsman, his allied interests, and those who cater to his needs and accommodation should join with the commercial interests whose foundation is the coni inuance of substantial migrations of salmonoids yearly; both have a common goal and would reap common benefits. Certainly the final disappearance of one of the most potent of the natural resources and vacation attractions of the Far West can be in some measure delayed or checked entirely.