A balancing act: Managing sustainable fisheries in the Columbia River


From its headwaters in British Columbia to the Pacific Ocean, the Columbia River sustains diverse species, communities, and economies. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) works with other states, federal entities, and tribes to co-manage Columbia River fisheries. This spring, we’ll be sharing a series of videos and blogs to dive into the details of managing these fisheries.

Managing Columbia River fisheries is a complex, science-based process. We’re all working together to balance the river’s fish stocks and ecosystems while offering sustainable fishing opportunities. Within the Columbia River basin, there are commercial and recreational non-treaty fisheries, as well as treaty fisheries. The fisheries target a variety of fish stocks, including salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon. These fish, and this ecosystem, are vitally important to the Pacific Northwest.

What does the Columbia River mean to the Pacific Northwest?

Anglers at sunrise on the Upper Columbia River near Hanford Reach.

The Columbia River is a lifeline for the Pacific Northwest. The river benefits Washington socially, economically, and ecologically. It provides important habitat for fish and wildlife, supports recreation and fisheries, and provides drinking water and irrigation.

Stretching over more than 1,200 miles, the Columbia River drains more water into the Pacific Ocean than any other river in North or South America. The Columbia River basin covers more than 250,000 square miles and has deep cultural, spiritual, and economic importance to tribal communities since time immemorial.

There are nine federally owned and operated hydropower dams on the mainstem Columbia and lower Snake rivers in Washington, and several other dams on the Yakima River, upper Snake River, and other Columbia River tributaries. The dams offer flood control and produce about 40% of all electricity for Pacific Northwest communities. The mainstem Columbia River is also a critical shipping route, providing access to the inland ports of Vancouver, WA and Portland, OR.

The Columbia River and its tributaries are habitat to more than a dozen salmon and steelhead stocks, many of which are listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Salmon recovery is a complex and long-term challenge. Success requires efforts on many fronts, including improving habitat and fish passage and carefully managing fisheries and water flows. WDFW co-manages Columbia River fisheries with the goal of recovering depressed stocks and directing sustainable fisheries on healthy stocks or hatchery production.

Managing complexity: Columbia River fisheries

Anglers in the Columbia River with a 28-pound Chinook salmon. Photo credit: Vanessa Hoffman

WDFW and co-managers are responsible for managing many non-treaty fisheries in the Columbia River. Each year, there are about a dozen recreational salmon and steelhead fisheries and between seven and nine commercial fisheries. Commercial fisheries occur in the mainstem Columbia River and off-channel areas below Bonneville Dam. Recreational fisheries take place throughout the Columbia River, its major tributaries, and several smaller tributaries.

Depending on the season, anglers may fish for salmon, steelhead, sturgeon, smelt, or shad. Anglers primarily fish for salmon and steelhead that are produced through hatchery programs.

Columbia River fisheries are distinguished by:

· Fishing sector: recreational or commercial

· Targeted fish stock

· Location and time

· Type of gear

WDFW manages or co-manages many different fisheries each season. This involves balancing different objectives, sharing limited fishery resources, and coordinating across the Columbia River Basin. Given the nature of the river and the targeted stocks, fisheries often overlap in time and space. Here’s an example of this overlap during the spring:

· There are three mainstem recreational fisheries for spring Chinook using hook and line gear — one above Bonneville Dam, one below Bonneville Dam, and one in the Snake River Basin.

· In some years, there is a recreational fishery on the Cowlitz River for smelt in the spring, using dipnet gear.

· For the commercial sector, the primary spring fishery targets spring Chinook using gillnet gear in specific off-channel locations known as Select Area Fishery Enhancement areas — or SAFE areas.

· Some years, there is also a commercial fishery for spring Chinook in the mainstem Columbia River.

· There are also recreational and commercial fisheries for shad in the spring. Recreational fisheries take place throughout the mainstem Columbia River using hook and line gear. The commercial fishery is concentrated below Bonneville Dam.

Managing these complex fisheries requires sound science, monitoring, and cooperation.

The cultural, community, and economic value of Columbia River fisheries

A morning view of the Columbia River from Dog Mountain in Southwest Washington. Photo credit: Lauren Dawkins

Since the end of the last ice age, Columbia River fisheries have made important contributions to Washington and to the people who call the Pacific Northwest home. Communities along the Columbia River have deep ties to fisheries and fishery resources, particularly salmon and steelhead.

Tribal communities have lived in the Columbia River basin since time immemorial. Today, they continue to depend on salmon as a foundation of their culture and their economy. Long before European settlement, Celilo and Kettle Falls were key trade centers for native communities, with fisheries serving as an economic engine for regional trade.

The long history of non-treaty commercial and recreational fishing on the Columbia River began with the arrival of the first European settlers. In many Columbia River communities, fishing is a tradition and a way of life that has been passed down from generation to generation.

Commercial and recreational fisheries provide the public with access to Columbia River resources. Commercial fisheries make it possible for Northwest residents to enjoy fresh, local, and affordable Columbia River seafood. Local fisheries also provide a link to other Washington and Alaska fisheries, expanding access to regionally-caught seafood.

The Columbia River also offers some of the best recreational salmon and steelhead fishing in the region. In 2023, these fisheries supported more than 400,000 recreational fishing trips throughout the region, even with complex regulations in place to balance popularity with sustainability.

A fishing guide in a red jacket scoops a Chinook salmon out of the river with a net.
Guide Bob Rees scoops a fall Chinook into his net along Sand Island, near Buoy 10 at the mouth of the Columbia River. Photo credit: Andy Walgamott

Both commercial and recreational fisheries play an important role in the economy of Columbia River communities. The fisheries provide local jobs and support a host of businesses up the supply chain. Catch from commercial fisheries flows to seafood-related businesses including fish buyers, processors, and dealers, then to fish markets, grocery stores, and restaurants.

Commercial fisheries on the Columbia River also support shoreside businesses, including boat builders, mechanics, and marine suppliers. Recreational fisheries rely on many of these same small businesses, in addition to bait and tackle shops and fishing guides. The anglers who travel to the region visit local hotels, restaurants, and retailers, all contributing to the regional tourism economy.

Recreational fishing guides often participate in multiple fisheries statewide throughout the year. For many of the fishing guides in Washington, Columbia River fisheries are an important part of their livelihood allowing them to run their businesses year-round.

A shared responsibility for a sustainable future

The Columbia River is a special place for the people, fish, and wildlife that call the Pacific Northwest home. Managing this rich and complex environment demands careful planning, sound science, and broad collaboration. WDFW, along with our co-managers, is committed to managing Columbia River fisheries in a way that protects fish stocks and ecosystems — and provides sustainable fishing opportunities.

Want to learn more? Check out our video on managing Columbia River Fisheries.



The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.