Bonneville Dam Fish Ladders: Once a Spawn a Time

Bonneville Dam fish ladder

Steelhead trout and salmon need the ladder at Bonneville. | reverendlukewarm/Flickr

Road Journals Blog—It’s no coincidence that Oregon’s Bonneville Fish Hatchery is next door to the roaring Bonneville Dam. The dam doesn’t just provide power to all of those hatchery buildings—it gives the hatchery a reason to exist.

As the hatchery manager explained to me, the millions of salmon and steelhead reared at the hatchery help “mitigate” the impact of the dam. In other words, the dam kills big fish, and the hatchery tries to compensate by putting young fingerlings (fish at least one inch long) back in the Columbia and tributaries further upstream.

Like many other dams on salmon rivers, Bonneville is equipped with fish ladders, a series of stair-step pools that give adult fish a fighting chance to get past the dam and reach their spawning grounds. Despite this lift, it’s estimated that almost 20 percent of salmon and steelhead in this stretch of the Columbia die before they reach their destination—and that doesn’t count the ones caught by fisherman.

Some fish miss the ladders and get whacked by turbines, some get fatally stressed out as they try to climb the ladders, and many thousands get eaten by sea lions who have discovered easy pickings in the fish jams immediately below the dam, AKA “The Bonneville Buffet.” The dam is 145 river miles away from the ocean, but for hungry sea lions, Bonneville is definitely worth the trip.

The ladders on both the Washington and Oregon sides of the dam give visitors an excellent chance to see wild salmon and steelhead in action. You can stand on an outside platform to watch the fish fight the current, or you can go inside to watch the fish pass by large viewing windows. It’s like a cool aquarium exhibit with a constantly rotating cast.

To give yourself the best chance to see some wild fish, visit the dam between April and November; with luck, the ladders will be crowded. In 2009, more than 480,000 adult chinook salmon and 600,000 steelhead trout passed through the dam.

Watching fish through the window, you can’t help but root for them to make it as far as they need to go. If they’ve already come this far, they just might have a chance.

This blog post was first published in October 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.