Where are the Salmon? More than 200,000 salmon should haveshown up in the Columbia river to spawn by now, but only afew hundred have been seen. The absence of the wild Chinooksalmon is a disturbing environmental mystery. The best casescenario is that they’re being kept away by low water andhigh sediment levels due to the drought in the PacificNorthwest. The worst is that there has been a shortage ofthe krill that is essential to their diet, and they havestarved while wintering out at sea. This means we’re going to see only farmed salmon in our grocery stores thisyear, although it may be designated as “wild” (Keep readingand we’ll tell you all about that).

For centuries local Indian tribes have depended on thesalmon, but not this year. Chinook salmon enter the ColumbiaRiver from the Pacific Ocean this time every year to returnto the streams where they were hatched and lay their eggs.

Fish ladders, resembling stairs, have actually been builtfor them inside the Bonneville Dam, which is located on theColumbia River, which flows through Portland, Oregon andVancouver, Washington. Inside the dam, the fish swim past alarge window, so they can be counted. Government fisheriesinspectors then decide when to start the fishing season andhow long it should last.

Most of the salmon making this year’s spring run first wentout to sea, as baby fish, in 2002 or 2003. There have beenno conditions in the last 2 to 3 years that would explainthe die off. The number of salmon in the Willamette River,which joins the Columbia below Bonneville Dam, are normalthis year. The Bonneville Dam releases a certain amount ofwater to help the fish if the water flow is too low, inorder to keep the young salmon out of the hydroelectricturbines, which kill about 10% of the fish that swim throughthem.

So when you go into your local fish store in search of wildsalmon, and see the fillets displayed at the usualastronomical prices, don’t expect to get the real thing. TheNew York Times recently reported that salmon are being soldas “wild” in a number of prestigious New York markets likeDean & DeLuca and Whole Foods, but they found that they werevirtually all the farmed variety instead?complete with thePCBs, dyes and other contaminants that purchasers of wildsalmon pay so much extra to avoid. (The salmon purchased bythe Times at Whole Foods was wild-caught, according to thechain, but still a farmed fish.)

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