A Natural History of Salmon and the Hells Gate Slide

A Natural History of Salmon and the Hells Gate Slide
by Matt Marinkovich


People have been gillnetting salmon in the Northwest since it was first settled in the mid 1800’s. Their early tools were open boats with canvas sails and a vast understanding of the sea. Today the tools have changed, but an understanding of the sea and its resources remains. The idea of harvesting our perpetual salmon resource has been carried on by families rich in tradition, and by independence loving individuals who seek to pursue the American dream. Their profession can only be carried on with a plentiful supply of salmon, which these men and women work hard to protect. The pain and rewards ofthis commitment are felt in the hearts of those who work their small boats in God’s great and unforgiving seas.

Hells Gate Slide

The 1916 Hells Gate slide nearly wiped out the sockeye salmon in the Fraser River. This run was rebuilt from a stock of only 1,200 fish in 1916 to nearly 30 million in 1993. Our fishermen made the sacrifices which made such a recovery possible. Today we are still working for the salmon, fighting to protect them from the hazards which accompany the ever-expanding horizons of our modern society.

An adult salmon will return to its native stream to spawn, and then die. Its hatchlings will live in the fragile habitat of the stream for a year or so, then move to the ocean for the following one to four years. After this time, each fish will return to its native stream to spawn, thereby continuing the cycle. It is on this return journey that gillnet fishermen harvest the salmon. So long as an adequate number of fish are allowed to return and spawn, the run will continue.

This is demonstrated by many examples in Alaska, where the runs are strong, the environment pure and clean. A river which has ten million fish returning allows a 9 million fish harvest. The remaining one million fish spawn in the stream, and their hatchlings will produce another ten million fish which will return after completing that part of their life in the sea.

In order for the resource to be perpetual, it must be managed properly. If too many fish are allowed to spawn, it will cause a variety of problem swhich may result in far less that the full production of the stream. Another key ingredient is habitat. Streams are polluted in a sadly large number of ways by people doing everyday things like their laundry, or by the sometimes devastating impact industry can have on the salmon habitat. It is essential for the salmons sake that every individual, business and industry, no matter how little they think they affect habitat, be conscious of the fact that they are effecting the environment.

Gillnetters Needed

The gillnet fishermen in Puget Sound are an integral part of a successful recipe. They fish from small boats with manageable nets which can be retrieved quickly. They are allowed to fish only at the proper time and place to harvest healthy runs. This, combined with the ability to use certain types of net to catch certain types of salmon makes their nets very selective.


It is this selectivity which makes gillnetting in Puget Sound such an important part of our salmon runs. Without our fishermen keeping the healthy and abundant runs in check, the weaker runs would struggle in competition with the stronger and the end result would jeopardize the weaker one.

Although we have long been active in enhancement efforts, starting in1991 every Puget Sound gillnet license holder began paying $100 dedicated solely to enhancing Washington’s salmon stocks.


In 1994 the Puget Sound’s rivers and streams enjoyed a record return of Chum Salmon, with numbers not seen since the 1940’s. This was in no small part due to the enhancement efforts of our commercial gillnet fishermen.

The gillnet fleet helps provide salmon to the 97% of Washington’s population who does not have the ability or the inclination to catch their own salmon. We provide jobs to our communities by means of processing plants, gear suppliers,retail shops, restaurateurs, repair and services.


2008. Matt recently stared in a nationwide broadcast on one of the cable channels detailing his exploits while fishing in Bristol Bay, Alaska.

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2 Responses to A Natural History of Salmon and the Hells Gate Slide

  1. Silke says:

    The hells gate slide was in 1913, many facts in here are untrue. Check your sources more carefully.

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