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Yakama Nation Fishery Succeeds In Restoring Columbia River Sturgeon

The Columbia River Basin extends through what is now known as Washington State, Oregon, and British Columbia, as well as land belonging to the Yakama Nation. For millennia the basin has been home to the white sturgeon, a traditionally significant and abundant food source. The boom in caviar exports of the 1870s caused a steep decline in white sturgeon populations, and more recently, hydroelectric damming and climate change have threatened the habitat of these migratory fish. The population decline was reversed when the Yakama Nation began to undertake concerted restoration efforts. With a mission to revitalize harvestable populations of white sturgeon in the mid-Columbia River and Lower Snake reservoirs, Yakama Nation Fisheries is bringing the species back.

Juvenile sturgeon are raised for release by Yakama Nation Fisheries. White sturgeon grow to an average length of 7 feet, and can live for over 100 years. Source: Yakama Nation Fisheries

For millennia, the Yakama people have resided in central Washington’s plateau and the Columbia River Basin. Throughout their history they utilized the entire landscape, from the Cascade Mountains to the riparian lowlands. To sustain their communities, some tribal members would seek game and edible plants in valleys and on the mountainside. Others would fish for white sturgeon, among other species of fish abundant in the basin.

The largest freshwater fish found in North America, white sturgeon are reported to grow up to 20 feet in length and can weigh almost a ton. Some individuals have also reached an age of 100 years. They demonstrate remarkable resemblance to their ancestors, who dwelled in river bottoms more than 100 million years ago. As a traditionally significant source of food, the relationship between the Yakama people and white sturgeon has always been one of reciprocity. Peter Whiteley, curator of North American Ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History, explained the ethic of landscape and species management in Native communities to GlacierHub: “You occupy this particular space and you are coequal with the other species that occupy that space, and it’s your job as a human to manage environmental relations in an ethical and productive way.” Through a decade of diligent and careful work Yakama Nations Fisheries has done just that, addressing a legacy of environmental degradation while building a healthier future for fish and people alike.

The 1800s saw not only the exploitation of white sturgeon for caviar, but intense conflicts over Native sovereignty and fishing rights. The influx of U.S. settlers beginning in the 1830s led to several treaties ceding Native land to the U.S. and British governments. In the Stevens Treaties of 1854 and 1855, 23 tribal groups and Native nations of the Pacific Northwest ceded approximately 64 million acres of land to the United States. Having been dispossessed of an incredible amount of land, the Native nations considered the fishing clauses of the treaties to be among the most valuable provisions accorded. These clauses reserved the right of tribes to healthy habitats for species spawning upstream of tribal fishing sites, including sturgeon.

Between 1892 and 1897, commercial sturgeon catch declined by over 98 percent as the population of fish plummeted. Photo source: University of Washington

In spite of these protections, the Columbia River Basin as it exists today is nearly unrecognizable from what it once was. In 1888, sturgeon fisheries were established along the Columbia River for the sole purpose of harvesting caviar, driving the white sturgeon to near extinction. Then, the construction of hydroelectric dams in the 1930s significantly fragmented the habitat of the white sturgeon. “The building of dams on the Columbia and other rivers throughout the northwest has had a major effect on the ability of anadromous fish to migrate to their spawning grounds, and has had a very deleterious effect on people’s sense of the world,” Whiteley told GlacierHub. Anadromous fish migrate from sea to spawn in rivers, and depend on relatively unfragmented waterways. “They require, essentially, big rivers to survive,” said Peter Moyle, a fisheries ecologist at the University of California, Davis. Moyle told GlacierHub that hydroelectric dams create, on multiple fronts, “an environment that’s much more hostile to sturgeon.”

Construction of the Grand Coulee Dam flooded more than 21,000 acres of Native-held land. To this day, the dam lacks a fish ladder for migratory species like salmon and sturgeon. Photo source: Charles Hubbard via U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

Evidence points to climate change and glacier retreat as additional factors in river health and habitat viability. Though Mt. Adams and the Mazama Glacier lie within the Yakama Nation, Mauri Pelto, professor of environmental science at Nichols College, explained that meltwater inputs to the Columbia River come primarily from glaciers north of the U.S.-Canada border. Their contribution to the waterway becomes most important during warm, dry spells, when glacier melt spikes. Pelto told GlacierHub that “if you get rid of glaciers… peak flow moves earlier in the year” relative to a normal season. As a result, the limited flow of late summer produces higher water temperatures, and less favorable conditions for sturgeon.

Through all of the environmental and political challenges over the centuries, the Yakama Nation continues to steward the Columbia River Basin and, beginning in 2009, established a program to revitalize white sturgeon populations. Led by Donella Miller, sturgeon biologist and manager of the White Sturgeon Management Project, the hatchery has released over 91,000 juvenile sturgeon to date. The project began with a modest budget, but two years after its inception, the first group of juveniles was released, with plans to monitor their success.

The sturgeon hatchery includes a wild brood spawning and rearing facility. For juvenile sturgeon, the ability to adapt to life in the river depends at least as much on genetics as the state of the river itself. Moyle told GlacierHub that when it comes to running a hatchery, “the theme is to keep track of the genetics, to try to mix wild fish into your rootstock as much as you can to prevent domestication.” Ensuring successful integration into the river is critical to running a sustainable hatchery operation, but also benefits local communities. Fishing has long drawn people to the Columbia River. According to Miller, the return of the sturgeon will lead to better outcomes for tribal and non-tribal fishermen alike.

Just after hatching, a two inch-long white sturgeon is nearly identical to its mature counterpart. Source: Donella Miller

To offset the cost of operations, the hatchery has begun raising mature female sturgeon and processing them for caviar. It’s a process that can be done without harming the fish; a small incision is made above the egg sac, and the eggs are siphoned out. For the Yakama, the positive outcomes of the hatchery operation justify selling their sturgeon’s caviar. In addition to restoring an ecosystem of great ecological and social significance, the project is considered by many to be an act of building sovereignty. Beth Rose Middleton, professor of Native American Studies at UC Davis, sees Indigenous-led conservation efforts like this one as happening “within a context of resistance” to settler colonialism, dispossession, and destructive development.

According to Middleton, while collaboration between multiple parties and stakeholders is critical, the practice of restoring a degraded ecosystem must put Native leadership and knowledge systems at the center. Of the field of conservation broadly, Middleton questions, “What is your starting point? Your starting point shouldn’t just be protecting the land from industrial development or pollution. It should be about, ‘What’s the history of this land?’”

Over the last decade the hatchery team has shown persistence akin to that of the ancient sturgeon. The Columbia River is still heavily dammed and climate change will continue to introduce warmer temperatures and greater variability to the basin, but this restoration signals a win for the Yakama Nation.

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