No creature, beside humans, penetrates the Pacific Northwest as thoroughly as salmon. In a single short lifetime a salmon may inhabit pelagic and nearshore marine waters, freshwater streams, mountains, forests, deserts, cities, and farms. Their presence is perhaps the region’s defining characteristic. They are, therefore, the single best indicator of the Northwest’s ecological integrity. The health of salmon is a close proxy for how extensively we have eroded our natural heritage.

They are woven in the cultural fabric of the Northwest and even into the bodies of those who have lived here: from the salmon-centric diet of early Native Americans, to gung-ho fisheries that sprung up in the 19th and 20th centuries, to the $25/pound Copper River salmon that city-dwellers eat in late spring. Their spawning ritual is certainly one of most astonishing events in the natural world. It is mysterious too—massive fish battle relentlessly, in some cases hundreds of miles upstream, for a single chance at procreation in the face of certain death.

From their death, however, springs life in many forms. Bald eagles and grizzlies feast on their carcasses and the nitrogen of their decomposing bodies enriches farmlands. Even the multitudes of younger salmon who do not reach their spawning grounds are food for birds, whales, sea lions, and otters, among many other of the Northwest’s inhabitants. Salmon are, in many ways, the heart of the region’s ecosystem. Connected to nearly everything, their lives support countless others forms of life.

But salmon, as everyone knows, are disappearing from the Northwest. Many runs and distinct population have already disappeared forever. Others are imperilled, finding a home on the US Endangered Species List or on Canada’s “red list.”

Percent of salmon stocks that are at-risk and extinct.

 

 

At-risk

Extinct

 

Southeast Alaska

 

2

0

 

British Columbia

 

16

2

 

Washington

 

38

18

 

Oregon

 

44

19

 

Idaho

 

19

62

 

Northwest California

 

88

5

  • There are countless ways of quantifying the salmon—by species, by runs, by seasons, or by “life histories.” I’ve recently been crunching numbers for just one subset of the Northwest’s salmon, albeit a very important one: spring and summer Chinook on the Columbia River. The Columbia, which is the biggest river on the west coast of the Americas, was once home to some of the world’s most prolific salmon runs and no salmon is more impressive than the big Chinooks—the kings—that run in the spring and summer. Also, data on the returning Chinooks is exceptionally high quality because of excellent fish-monitoring at river’s many dams.

    Today on the Columbia, salmon return in only a fraction—perhaps 1/20th—of their historic abundance. And because most salmon on the Columbia today are hatchery-raised fish, the true picture of salmon is even less rosy. Wild Chinook may only now be 1% of their historic numbers.

    In recent years, however, there has been cause for at least mild optimism and even pollyana claims that the salmon are fine after all. From 2000 to 2004, Chinooks returned to the Columbia in the greatest numbers since at least the 1930s—though even at the height of their recent peak, they were only about 1/6th of their historic abundance; and, of course, the wild fish numbers were much smaller than that. But then bad news followed. In the spring of 2005, the Chinooks didn’t show up—at least, there were far fewer fish than researchers had been expecting. Newspaper headlines were grim, as biologists puzzled over the missing fish.

    One big obstacle to understanding salmon is that their population sizes are frenetic. Returning Chinook at the Bonneville Dam—the lowest dam on the Columbia—vary by an average of 38 percent a year. And while salmon numbers appear to follow rough population cycles, there are plenty of aberrations. It’s not that yearly salmon numbers don’t matter, but that the long term trends are the ones that are really worth paying attention to. It is just as foolish to sound an alarm solely because of this year’s low returns, as it was for dam proponents to use 2001’s spike in numbers to claim that salmon populations are healthy.

    All this makes salmon recovery very challenging. Not that it needs to be any more challenging than it already is—salmon are nothing if not controversial. Not only is it hard to count them (and hard to assign meaning to the counts) but restoration efforts are hampered by the fish’s ubiquity. Their declines can be blamed on so may things—hydroelectric dams, irrigation, dredging, cattle ranching, clearcutting, suburban sprawl, industrial waste, global warming, natural ocean current cycles, sport fishing, commercial fishing, aquaculture, shoreline development, stormwater management, and much more—that everyone to blame can easily pass the buck to someone else.

    How then, can we restore salmon the anywhere near their native abundance? It strikes me that in at least this one case, we already have a policy solution that works. It may not be very popular, especially among some property rights advocates, but the US Endangered Species Act listing for many stocks of salmon forces us to ask all right questions about our way of life: Is our urban development too expansive, and too heavy on the land? Are we using natural resources—forests, fisheries, hydropower, and farms—in a way that is sensitive to the long-term success of the natural systems that sustain them?

    As go the salmon, so goes the ecology of the Northwest. If the region’s salmon are healthy, the Northwest’s ecosystems will be healthy too. The mechanisms of salmon restoration are the very same mechanisms that will make the Northwest a place of clean water, open spaces, tall forests, and wild rivers. We know the problem. All we must do now is set ourselves to the work. It may not be easy, but it will be easy to care, because the fate of salmon is our fate too.