Fish Stories Get Better and Betterby Mark Trahant, Columnist
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - August 1, 2004
I remember the first time I caught a chinook salmon. I was still a kid and we were fishing on a tributary of Idaho's Salmon River. When I thought the fish was getting away, I dove into the shallow, cold water and looped my arms around it. I grabbed the fish -- and someone else pulled me out of the water.
This fish didn't get away. Nor did the story. My kids are sick of hearing about this (or any other fish) tale. They know the punch line because the story has been told in so many forms over the years.
The same is true for our region's stories. We tell folks about the greatness of the Pacific Northwest, eager to convey just one more tidbit of information after our listeners have said enough.
Two recent salmon stories come to mind.
Last week's fishing on Lake Washington and Elliott Bay is a story about how much progress we've made. Not that many years ago, when people talked about salmon, the conversation would have been arrested by a "sigh" -- and the word extinction might would have been the key element in the storyline. Few would have imagined Lake Washington dotted with boats chasing sockeyes. Our fish story today is so remarkable that it makes the TV news; a rush hour of fishing boats framed on the screen by even busier freeways.
Extinction remains a possibility, but the story is changing. Now we talk about the threat and then some of us add a chapter about a river or lake where the fish have come back.
Last summer I took my kids to Idaho and to a river where the salmon had all but disappeared. We were able to walk down the banks, peer into the water and see dozens of fish. It's something I never thought I'd ever see again.
Even better: Fishers on Lake Washington are telling this story in an urban context. The very act of storytelling moves the natural world closer to our own. Nature does not have to be removed, some far-off wilderness. The city is nature, too. The fish are here.
The second story is actually two stories -- fish or electricity -- stories that have a long history of competition.
When this region started talking about electricity, salmon was an afterthought. The region was proud of its new dams, the American pyramids, and the destruction of salmon runs was just an unfortunate consequence of inexpensive electricity. For decades the story told was about hydropower as the ideal; a pollution-free energy source, free of consequences.
But inexpensive electricity was never free for the Northwest. The cost was higher than we expected because the payment required part of our soul.
Slowly, at first, the story started to change. We tried a new version, one that allowed both electricity and fish. The region says yes to its salmon runs -- as long as we can also keep our inexpensive electricity.
But this narrative required something more. In order to have both power and fish we need to be flexible.
Then the energy crisis hit -- and those who tell the story about the region as a battery decided their story mattered more. They decided that fish didn't need as much help. They decided against being flexible.
Last week a federal judge picked the fish's side of the story. He dismissed the plan by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bonneville Power Administration to limit spill water over dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. The spills help young salmon make their way downriver past electric-generation turbines.
"Today we celebrate a great victory for salmon," Jay Minthorn, chairman of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said in a news release. "The spill program serves an important part of Northwest salmon recovery; we must remain vigilant to ensure Northwest congressional leaders and the Bush administration fully implement all components of the Federal Salmon Plan."
Olney Patt Jr., the fish commission's director, said the BPA plan allowed "accountants to dictate Columbia River salmon policy with plots that slap the face of sound science."
Of course the Army Corps and the BPA said their plan would save money. It stuck to the old fiction that the Northwest could have its cheap power free of environmental costs or consequences.
For now, at least, the fish story is the one that counts. I hope it's one I can tell so often that my kids get bored.
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