It’s the king of salmon, the biggest, most valuable, and most popular of the five Pacific Northwest species. And it’s no wonder.

Wild-caught Chinook, or king, salmon is cherished for its rich flavor, high oil content, and firm, flaky, meaty but tender texture. “I love the structure of Chinook,” says LJ Klinkenberg, the new director and executive chef of the Marriott Foundation Hospitality and Culinary Innovation Center at Washington State University’s Carson College of Business. “I like the flakiness and how big and wide those flakes are.”

Dense yet succulent, Chinook stands up to grilling and robust sauces and seasonings. “Chinook just really lends itself to taking on bolder flavors. It’s got great flavor and mouthfeel,” says Klinkenberg, who particularly enjoys Asian-inspired preparations such as soy sauce, Sriracha, and red pepper. But Chinook also makes “a beautiful blackened fish, imparting those Creole influences. For me, being a Pacific Northwest chef⁠—though I’ve traveled and lived and worked in other places⁠—Chinook is right at the top of my favorite proteins.”

The iconic and symbolic salmon is vital not only to Washington state’s cuisine but its history, identity, economy, and environment. At least 138 wildlife species⁠—including seagulls, eagles, and orcas⁠—depend on all types of Pacific salmon for food. Salmon also support some 16,000 jobs in commercial and recreational fishing, totaling about $540 million in personal income. And they make up an integral part of ancient and contemporary Indigenous culture and heritage, from sustenance to spirituality. Salmon also draw tourists for sportfishing and spectacle. Who doesn’t enjoy watching the fishmongers at Seattle’s Pike Place Market throw a glistening, silvery king salmon through the air?

But the prized staple of Washington state fare has been declining for decades. The largest and oldest Chinook are disappearing from local waters. Gone are the enormous kings weighing nearly 100 pounds that once swam up the Columbia River. They are not only decreasing in length and weight but also diminishing in number. Salish Sea populations are down 60 percent since the Pacific Salmon Commission began tracking in 1984. In Puget Sound, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, populations are as little as 10 percent of historic numbers.

“And time is running out,” warns the 2020 State of Salmon in Watersheds report from the Governor’s Salmon Recovery Office in the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office. “The climate is changing, rivers are warming, habitat is diminishing, and the natural systems that support salmon in the Pacific Northwest need help now more than ever.”

In all, 28 types of West Coast salmon and steelhead are listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Of the 14 in Washington state, 10 are behind in recovery goals and five are considered in crisis. Four of those five are types of Chinook (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha). Two, including the Upper Columbia spring run, are endangered. Seven are threatened, including the Lower Columbia River, Puget Sound, Snake River fall run, and Snake River spring/summer run.

The past few years, fraught with wildfires and drought, have been especially hard on them. And conditions are only expected to be exacerbated.

As the state’s human population grows, more salmon habitat will be lost, says Jen McIntyre, assistant professor of aquatic toxicology at the WSU Puyallup Research and Extension Center, who explores chemical properties of stormwater runoff and their effects on salmon. She’s part of a research team that published a study in the December 2020 issue of Science, finding coho salmon are especially sensitive to 6PPD-quinone, a transformation product of a chemical in automotive tires that kills fish before they spawn. It “could also have sublethal impacts on Chinook and other salmon,” she says. “There’s definitely a concern.”

Indigenous peoples have caught and consumed kings for more than 9,000 years, honoring their arrival each spring with a special ceremony. “There was great joy with the Natives last night in consequence of the arrival of the salmon,” William Clark wrote in his journal in April 1806 after encountering a first-salmon ceremony at Celilo Falls. That season’s first fish “was the (harbinger) of good news” and “divided into small pieces,” which were “given to each child in the village.”

Today, tribal members “are still eating more fish (than non-tribal members), but it’s 10 times lower than what they historically would have had,” McIntyre says.

By 1865, industry⁠—from mining and milling to farming, logging, overfishing, and more⁠—was already affecting salmon runs and fisheries. Between 1889 and 1922, as many as 25 million pounds a year were harvested. That dropped to 15 million a year by the mid-twentieth century and now totals fewer than 5 million, according to WSU researchers who found Columbia River Chinook have lost as much as two-thirds of their genetic diversity.

Chinook spawn in fresh water on both sides of the Cascade Range. Fry rear three months to a year or two before migrating downstream to estuaries and, finally, the ocean, where they feed and grow for three to seven years, swimming thousands of miles to the Gulf of Alaska and back to their natal creeks and streams to spawn.

According to the Watersheds report, some 10 to 16 million salmon and steelhead trout returned each year to the Columbia River system before the twentieth century. Today, more than 20,000 barriers⁠—including dams and roads⁠—block migration paths, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. Estimates suggest runs are just 2 percent of what they once were.

This, McIntyre says, “is tragic on many levels. Most important for me is the impact on the ecosystem. Fewer nutrients are coming back from the ocean and being deposited in freshwater habitats. We see a significant loss of productivity.”

Still, she says, “there’s reason to hope.” Scientists and officials are exploring alternative ways to get salmon back upstream, including the so-called salmon cannon, or Whooshh transport system, developed by Seattle-based Whooshh Innovations.

In the Columbia River basin, this could allow salmon to reaccess the 40 percent of their habitat blocked by impassable dams. “It’s been over 60 years since salmon were able to get above those dams,” McIntyre says. “Even with all of the habitat challenges salmon face in the accessible portions of the basin, being able to make use of those historical habitats would be a game changer for salmon recovery.”

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Washington State of Salmon in Watersheds

Tribal connection inspires efforts to save salmon (WSU Insider, November 29, 2021)

Drones show potential to improve salmon nest counts (WSU Insider, October 19, 2022)

Prehistoric Pacific Coast diets had salmon limits (WSU Insider, April 12, 2021)