The U.S. guaranteed that the Pacific Northwest tribes would have access to salmon forever. But the fish are dying – blocked by dams; contaminated by dumping; threatened by climate change – and government policy is largely to blame. The series sheds light on the agencies and policies that are responsible and on a way of life that is ending.
Presented with our findings about contaminated fish, Oregon Health Authority and Washington Department of Health toxicologists are meeting with officials about a possible advisory or river clean-up plan. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon called the work “[deeply troubling](https://www.propublica.org/article/toxic-salmon-columbia-river-basin-lawmaker-response)” and is exploring, with other lawmakers, new legislation or avenues for funding. One state legislator added that if lawmakers fail to take action, they could be held legally liable for treaty violations.
After the first two installments in our series, a coalition of 60 nonprofit and tribal organizations across the Northwest cited our work in a letter to Congress calling for a major overhaul of salmon recovery efforts. The lead organization, the National Wildlife Federation, is currently negotiating with the Biden administration on major changes to Columbia River management, and called our reporting “a great service” to the public.
The response also has been positive among Columbia River tribal members. Tribal leaders said they are grateful for the commitments from legislators and regulators and that they are seeing more momentum around toxics than they have seen in a decade.
Finally, a number of experts wrote to thank us. “I appreciate all the care you put into understanding the data,” wrote the head of the team at the University of Washington, whose data we used to analyze hatcheries; she reported that the article was being shared within government agencies.
A senior advisor for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who is also a member of a Northwest tribe, said our coverage “was amazingly good. The writing was superb and outlined the history of the Basin in a blunt and sincerely honest manner. It is THE conversation lots of folks in the political realm have trouble with. … Your article should be read by anyone living and about to live in the PNW.”
For our first story, our goal was a comprehensive analysis of each publicly funded salmon and steelhead trout hatchery in the Pacific Northwest. But hatcheries don’t keep or analyze their data in consistent ways, making this analysis impossible. So data reporter Irena Hwang took an innovative approach based on a smaller number of fish, but more easily comparable across populations: data from PIT microchips, which are detected at dams the way automated toll readers work on the highway. We used Python and other open-source software, and consulted with data advisors to assess the validity of our findings using statistical techniques.
To our knowledge, this was the first time such an analysis had been performed, and it cast a significant shadow on the multi-billion dollar government-funded system. We used a combination of Adobe Illustrator and hand-painted watercolors to visualize our analysis, and laid out the difficulties in “[How Not to Count Salmon](https://www.propublica.org/article/salmon-hatcheries-pnw-fish-data).”
For our other data-heavy story, we set out to determine the level of contamination in Columbia River salmon. We worked with toxicologists and a certified lab to test 50 fish, then consulted current and former EPA and state health agency scientists to calculate the estimated health risks for the estimated tribal diet. (Consumption estimates help states determine how much pollution companies can discharge, and have historically undercounted how much tribal members eat.)
The data revealed two chemicals – mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs – at high enough levels that health agencies would deem the fish unsafe when consumed at just over half the rate commonly reported by tribal members. The levels of PCBs in the salmon also pose cancer risks under the average tribal diet that are five times greater than what the EPA considers sufficiently protective of public health. Our raw data is available on ProPublica’s Data Store.
Context about the project:
No journalistic outlet has examined the crisis of salmon in the Pacific Northwest as deeply from the perspective of Native American treaty rights. This series revealed how government decisions today have reaggravated harms Native people suffered centuries ago, with a sharp focus on the institutions and policies that still fail to protect the fish.
Nearly 170 years ago, the U.S. government started signing treaties with indigenous tribes in the Pacific Northwest, some of whom were threatened with violence if they refused. Under those treaties, the U.S. amassed millions of acres of land for new settlers; tribes retained the rights to critical natural resources, including fresh water and salmon. Oregon Public Broadcasting and ProPublica teamed up for a [year-long](https://www.propublica.org/series/broken-promises) effort to show the many failures of the U.S. government to fulfill its salmon-related treaty obligations.
The stories on hatcheries’ failings and toxicity in fish were major undertakings. (We spent roughly $17,000 to determine the level of contamination in Columbia River salmon, using a sample size larger than health officials had used in the past as a basis for health advisories.) But these data efforts were only part of the story. Throughout the series, we have elevated tribal voices about the devastating decline of salmon. Gaining their trust was hard: Historically, they told us, journalists have ignored and misrepresented them. We spent many months with tribal members, attending council meetings, introducing ourselves, answering questions about our goals.
As readers absorb the non-data elements of the project – whether it is [the film](https://www.propublica.org/article/salmon-people-a-native-fishing-familys-fight-to-preserve-a-way-of-life) and accompanying piece about Randy Settler’s [family history of heartbreak](https://www.propublica.org/article/the-fight-of-the-salmon-people), or Tony Shick’s column on the [racism embedded in government policy](https://www.propublica.org/article/the-racism-and-resilience-behind-todays-salmon-crisis) – it becomes possible to see the data findings in all their richness: not abstract numbers, but measurable harm that has been largely ignored until now.
What can other journalists learn from this project?
This project resulted in what felt like two very different, but both important takeaways.
First, we found that if you encounter data gaps while trying to answer a reporting question, you can often find ways to work with communities to fill those data gaps. For example, one of the central unanswered questions confronting our reporting on pollution in this series was whether Columbia River salmon contain levels of contamination that could harm tribal health. Regulators responsible for tracking this information told us that there has been a dearth of monitoring – particularly as it comes to salmon. Not only did this reveal a data gap, but also an accountability point that we delved further into in our reporting. Our journalists then asked tribal communities for their help in collecting our own data on this question, and devised a methodology with the help of former and current regulators to conduct our own testing. The resulting data was the backbone of the story. As other reporters continue to be met with data gaps, we hope this project will push them to think through creative ways to work with communities and fill those gaps.
Second, we also encountered the dangers of too much data. After wading through thousands of pages of data about salmon production, we realized that when it came to assessing hatchery performance, less is more. Rather than getting lost in the weeds about every step of salmon hatcheries, like egg health or genetics, we decided to focus on a simpler quantity: the ratio of juvenile salmon leaving hatcheries to the number of adult salmon coming back. Best of all, the ratio could be directly compared to a benchmark established by the hydropower industry, allowing us to hold the industry accountable to their own metric.