Salmon and Steelhead

The journey of Columbia River salmon is one of the greatest migrations on earth.

Get inspired to protect salmon


The Columbia River Basin once produced more salmon and steelhead than any other river in the world. Before the 1840s, up to 16 million salmon and steelhead returned to the Columbia River to spawn each year. During the 20th century, that number declined to less than 1 million fish.

Salmon and steelhead are born in freshwater streams—grow to finger size in the river and estuary, pack on the fat in the Pacific Ocean for most of their adult lives—and then return to their birth streams to spawn and die.

Salmon support people and wildlife such as the critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales, bears, and bald eagles.

Threats to salmon

Overfishing, habitat alteration, pollution, dams, and other human-caused impacts have decimated salmon populations throughout the Columbia Basin.

There are 14 dams on the mainstem of the Columbia River and over 450 dams throughout the entire Columbia Basin. The dams on the Columbia River and its tributaries produce half of the electricity consumed in the Pacific Northwest. These dams significantly impact the river’s flow, water quality, and salmon runs.

Climate change poses serious threats to salmon and steelhead. From ocean acidification to rising water temperatures to invasive warm-water species, the impacts of climate change threaten every population of Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead.

Recovery efforts

Beginning in the 1990s, the federal government listed thirteen Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead populations as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The ESA protects species and critical habitat to prevent extinction. According to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, 106 runs of Columbia River Basin salmon and steelhead have gone extinct over time, some as recently as the early 1990s.

A critical series of court cases—called the Federal Columbia River Power System Biological Opinion litigation—challenge the federal government’s management of hydropower dams in the Columbia and Snake rivers. Columbia Riverkeeper is one of several organizations represented by Earthjustice in the litigation. ​​​To learn more, visit Earthjustice’s website.

In 2015, hot water killed 250,000 adult sockeye salmon in the Columbia and Snake rivers. Learn how Riverkeeper is taking action to protect the Columbia’s iconic salmon from hot water.


The Columbia River, and the communities that depend on it, face serious threats from toxic pollution. Explore what we know about toxics in Columbia River fish.


Salmon need clean, cool water.
The journey of salmon—from spawning streams down the Columbia, into the Pacific, and back again—is one of the greatest migrations on Earth. Riverkeeper is fighting to protect threatened salmon from toxic pollution, hot water, habitat degradation, and dangerous fossil fuel proposals.


Explore the Columbia River from the perspective of a migrating salmon.