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Fishing Boats at Bouy 10 near Astoria, OR. Photo Credit: Rob Hilson / Chinook Observer

Remove the Dams, Reel in the Profit

The Economic Contributions of Recreational Salmon and Steelhead Angling in the Columbia and Snake Rivers

By Betsy Emery, Advocacy and Campaign Manager
November 3, 2020

This article was originally published in the August edition of Salmon Trout Steelheader Magazine. An updated version is republished here for reference.

I f recreational fishing were a company, national angler spending in 2011 would have placed fishing as number 51 on the Fortune 500 list. It generated more economic output than Google. A 2018 report from the American Fisheries Society estimated that about 13% of adults in the U.S. go fishing each year, and that number is on the rise. The American Sportfishing Association estimates that in 2019, fishing supported over 12,000 jobs and generated $841 million in retail sales, providing an economic output of over $1.4 billion in Oregon alone.

People visit the Columbia River Basin from all over the state, the U.S., and the globe for recreation. A recent economic study suggested that recreation is one of the most important benefits that the Snake and Columbia rivers provide. Their analysis concluded that recreational fishing generates more than twice the economic value that commercial fishing in these two rivers alone, although recreational anglers are only responsible for taking 20% of the total salmon harvested in the basin between 1970 and 2000.

The average number of annual recreational angling trips in Oregon has been increasing over the past two decades. There were over 5.6 million fishing days in Oregon in 2019, more than 138,000 of which were exclusively for spring and summer Chinook on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. This single species generates an annual $16.7 million in spending, $6.8 million in direct profit for local business and guides and $678,000 in Oregon taxes. Much of the value that angling generates is associated with fishing equipment, licenses, and fuel. These are important sources of income for bait and gear shops, especially in rural communities. In 2017, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife estimated that this type of pre-trip spending generated approximately $60 million annually.

Oregon offers opportunities for world-class coho, Chinook, sockeye, and steelhead fishing, enticing many anglers to travel the state to explore unfamiliar waters, supporting hotels, restaurants, and other small businesses along the way. When anglers arrive at their destination, they rely on local guides to find the best fishing spots and learn how to chase specific species there, providing substantial profit to Oregon's guiding industry.

Salmon and steelhead fishing are the foundation for a robust economy throughout the Columbia River Basin, but it is teetering on the brink. Thirteen populations of salmon and steelhead are at risk of extinction. Roughly 1 million salmon returned to the lower Columbia River in 2019, when historically, anywhere between 10 and 15 million adults would return. In recent years, returns have often been too small to allow for robust fishing opportunities. In 2019, there were only 7 days of meaningful opportunity for spring salmon fishing on the Columbia, a record low, and 2020 didn't pan out much better. The Buoy 10 fishery for fall Chinook usually provides substantial fishing opportunity for individual and guided trips, but it was only open for 14 days this year. The recreational fisheries below Bonneville Dam close just as the fish begin to arrive, causing substantial impacts to a community that depends on healthy and abundant Columbia River fisheries.

As salmon and steelhead populations decline, so do fishing opportunities. Anglers decide whether to go on a fishing trip based on whether they expect to catch the number, size, and species of fish they are interested in and whether the expected benefits outweigh the costs associated with the trip (gear, shuttle, gas, food, lodging, etc.). When fishing opportunities decline, anglers take fewer trips and the negative impact on small fishing communities is striking. Luhr-Jensen & Sons, once the largest salmon lure manufacturing company in the world, has manufactured fishing gear along the banks of the Columbia River since the 1930s. Recent declines in salmon abundance impacted the business so consistently that when the founder retired, he decided to sell the company. What used to be one of the biggest employers in Hood River is now owned by a large international company and its operations are based offshore.

It is widely reported in scientific studies and recent agency reports that breaching the lower Snake River dams will significantly benefit endangered salmon and steelhead populations in the Columbia and Snake rivers. A 2017 report produced by Earth Economics estimated that if the dams are breached, an additional one million fish will return to the lower Columbia River each year, increasing what anglers are allowed to harvest by 100,000 to 400,000 fish. Breaching the dams will also provide longer fishing seasons and reduce the uncertainty about potential fishery closure dates. This translates to an estimated $47 million in additional value. Longer fishing seasons would also increase the number of fishing licenses sold, providing more funding for salmon and steelhead conservation.

While recreational fishing isn’t a traditional “good” or “service” that is commoditized in the same way that hydropower, river navigation, flood control and irrigation are, it generates unparalleled—and too often ignored—economic value to the region. It's well past time to make river management decisions in accordance with the value of healthy watersheds. Let's remove the four lower Snake River dams.