The salmon is of a great importance to the economy of the world. This may be a rather broad statement, but one that is totally valid. It is that importance and the non acknowledgment of its importance, that has led to the current and ongoing reduction of its populations. The immediate reactions to the eradication of the salmon are causing a friction among all people who have any stake or conscience in their survival. Is it necessary to enumerate the problems and to affix blame for their demise? Yes. Why? After all assigning blame does not mean that there will be a fix forthcoming or even that the problem will be addressed. Still knowing the path that has brought us to this point, will allow us to see where we really need to go to stop this slaughter. So let me start with some subjective history and finger-pointing.
The most obvious place to begin is with the early pioneers and their attitudes toward nature. When the Europeans first migrated west the abundance of salmon was seen in the same manner that all of nature's bounty was viewed. That was one of use. In other words, God gave it to us to use and by God we're going to use it. Unfortunately, both the attitude and use was typically European in nature. The best example I have of this is the early practice of backing the farm wagons up to the river and pitchforking them full of salmon. Now if they had been taken and used for food I would probably have less of a complaint. But, the use that they were given was one of fertilizer. The farmers would take the fish and spread them out on their fields. The old photos of this practice have disappeared from the county museums and historical societies in recent years, but that does not change the truth that these practices took place. It only hides the practice from view. Further, it denies that there is any connected responsibility.
Moving along in history. The next largest slaughter of this wondrous animal took place with the construction of the Grand Coulee damn (sic). Now to be sure this was a magnificent feat, an engineering marvel. The benefits from it have reached across the decades and to this day continue to provide this nation and the world with an abundance of food, energy and opportunity that is extraordinary. That construction also wiped out the entire salmon population upstream behind Grand Coulee. The entire stock of salmon that for generations had spawned in what is now British Columbia and Alberta disappeared forever, forever. Since that early hydro project there have been a great number of other damns built on both the Columbia and the Snake rivers. So many in fact, that today there is only one place that the Columbia river still flows unhindered by these concrete structures. It is called The Hanford Reach. Coincidently it is one of the last and largest spawning grounds for Chinook salmon. I must add, that even today with all that is known about what is needed to maintain the stocks of these native fish, the agriculturists are still attempting to ruin that stretch of water.
To be fair, the other damns that have been erected since, now have fish ladders incorporated into their design. Fish ladders that simulate streams and rapids thus allowing the fish to continue their migration upstream. There were other projects undertaken to compensate for the numbers of salmon lost to these damns. A number a fish hatcheries, both state and federal, were established. The difficulty with this was that hatchery-reared fish had less diversity and ultimately less resistance to disease and parasites that are a part of the salmon's life. They also masked the disappearance of many native stocks that contributed to the overall population.
Then, in the 1980's, three things happened that have led to the salmon's precarious situation as it exists today. Two of them are tied to that old attitude that nature is to be used. The third is in the same vein but uniquely modern. This last one has specifically to do with our modern life style and has to do with how we spend our leisure time. The lakes that exist behind these modern damns are kept full so that they can be used for recreational endeavors. To understand what this really means to the fish, we need to know about the biology of the salmon.
After the fry have hatched and grown to a size where they are relatively safe from predators, they begin their swim to the ocean. There is a finite time allowed for this journey and the tremendous amount of slack water behind the damns slows them down. What this really means is that there comes a time in their down stream migration that their bodies change from a fresh water fish to one that is suited for ocean survival. If this happens when they are still in fresh water they die.
While much press is given to fish lost in the blades of turbines of the hydro electric projects that are part of the damns. An equal number or greater lose their lives when they have changed and the water is still fresh. Therefore the transit time from stream to ocean is crucial. That is also why there is a focus on the slack water held behind the damns and why many want those waters drawn down during times of down stream migrations.
The other two reasons are really one of economics. And to my way of thinking the government tried to balance our trade deficit on the backs of the salmon. First, the tremendous harvest of timber led to clear cuts and habitat destruction. One of the modern ways of timber harvest has to do with cutting trees right up to the banks of streams that in many cases are spawning grounds for the salmon. What this does is first to eliminate shade and raise the temperature of the water. It also leads to an increase in siltation caused by the runoff from now denuded forest soils. This causes first a covering of the stream gravel where the fish deposit their eggs. It also leads to a clogging of the gills of the fry and thence suffocation. While there are regulations that forbid harvesting timber within one hundred yards of a stream, there are those who do so anyway. By the time the problem has been discovered, the timber company is long gone and the only recourse is through the courts. Which not only takes forever, but very often results only in promises not to do it again, which of course is laughed at and never taken seriously. This is a cynical view and there are those who do observe the rules. Still, the overall attitude is screw it.
The other problem of ocean harvest is also one of abuse and careless disregard. This is typified by the miles and miles of drift nets that many used during the 80's. The inordinate and flagrant use of these devices was decried by environmentalists in the way they killed our intelligent dolphins. The real harm to fish stocks was ignored. Once again our trade deficit was being borne on the back of this great fish. A prime example of how the stocks of food fish are abused can be seen within the fishing practices of the fleet that works the ocean around Dutch Harbor, AK. The trawlers catch nets full of fish and any of those that are not in season are dumped back into the ocean. Of course they are already dead and are food only for the gulls. Again to be fair they are only following the rules and regulations laid down by the agencies who are responsible for the oversight and administering these natural resources. Most often these agencies are hand in glove with those they are supposed to be regulating and with a wink and nod the circumvention of both the law and its intent are lost. Again the overall attitude is screw it.
Is there anything that can be done to forestall the oblivion that awaits the salmon? Well, yes. It of course calls for sacrifice. It calls for determination. It demands an acknowledgment that there are things in this world that are of equal importance to us. Currently underway here in Oregon is a plan designed to save the coastal coho salmon. Why this plan may work, has more to do with fear than with a shared belief that they are one of god's creatures and worthy of fair and decent treatment.
In fear that the Endangered Species Act would be extended to the coastal coho salmon the timber industry, farmers and fishermen have consulted with our governor's staff and agreed to an ongoing set of restrictions aimed at building up depleted stocks. The way to do this will be adherence to timber harvest practice of buffer zones along streams, something that should have been done all along: The restoration of streams and spawning grounds ruined by non-compliance to the aforementioned buffer zones. It calls for farmers to pay more attention to how the streams and banks of those streams are affected by livestock. Fisherman, who have so far had to bare the brunt of dwindling stocks of salmon, will of course continue to do with less. And everyone will have to hope that this effort is not too late. There are monies forth coming both from the state treasury and from a tax on the timber industry. There are also a great number of people who are willing to work to see that this plan succeeds.
The only other option, and this is where the fear comes from, is the actual listing of the coho as an endangered species. If that were to happen it would in effect remove all property rights from the landowners,and farmers; halt logging on state, federal, and private lands. And the fishermen still wouldn't have any fish. So the Oregon plan will now demand that all connected stand up and do the right thing, which they should have been doing all along. In the 1980's Secretary of the Interior James Watt made the statement that it doesn't matter that we destroy the environment.
Well, I'm here to say that when we stand before the Great Spirit we, each one of us, will have to answer as to how we treated all of his creation. And he knows when we lie.
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