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History of Salmon Shows our Repeated Mistakes

by Tim McNulty
Special to The Seattle Times - November 11, 2003

David Montgomery has a unique perspective on salmon. As a geologist who studies the evolution of landscapes, he sees salmon as inseparable from the rivers that give them birth. In his compelling new book, "King of Fish," he reminds readers that Pacific salmon grew up with our geologically youthful coastal landscape.

Volcano-driven landslides, ice-age glaciers, earthquakes, wildfires, floods. At heart, salmon are creatures that evolved with a dynamic, changing landscape. The only force they have not learned to cope with is us.

For millennia, salmon filled rivers and nourished human populations in North America, Europe and Asia. But in just a few centuries they have become rare, endangered or extinct across most of their range.

Montgomery suggests that humans have conducted at least three full-scale experiments on how well salmon can adapt to change: in Great Britain, New England and the Pacific Northwest. Salmon failed each time.

"King of Fish" is an insightful, scrupulously researched, sometimes painful account of the ways in which human progress have proved lethal to salmon. But it moves beyond the realm of environmental history to offer hope for saving the last great runs of the Northwest.

We can save our salmon, Montgomery tells us, if we learn some simple lessons from the past and make room for these magnificent fish in our increasingly crowded world.

Salmon's historic importance is documented in the Magna Carta, which in 1216 established fishing regulations and measures to protect salmon streams.

Salmon recovery efforts began as early as 1712 in England. But the burgeoning industrial age in the 18th century, with its onslaught of dams, mills, commercial overfishing and pollution from growing urban centers, sent salmon into a downward spiral.

Montgomery, a professor of geomorphology at the University of Washington, points out that stiff laws to regulate the catch and protect habitat were in place throughout this time, but enforcement, left to local authorities, was lax. By the mid-20th century, Atlantic salmon were extinct across much of Europe. Today only four countries still maintain viable runs.

The same pattern repeated on a slower timeframe across the Atlantic in New England. Atlantic salmon thronged rivers for 1,000 miles, from Long Island Sound to Hudson's Bay. At the time of the American Revolution, the colonies were catching over 1 million fish a year. Eighteenth-century documents show that dam construction on New England rivers was quickly followed by declining commercial catches.

By 1850, half of New England's streams were blocked to salmon spawning by dams — the rest were degraded by siltation following logging and clearing for agriculture. There were too few Atlantic salmon left to support a commercial fishery.

When artificial hatchery propagation boosted runs a century later, they, too, were overfished. As was the case in Europe, the public remained largely complacent throughout.

Here in the Northwest, the story sadly repeats. By 1867, canneries were shipping 30 million pounds of salmon annually from the Columbia River alone. Commercial exploitation was soon compounded by habitat destruction. Mills dumped mountains of sawdust into salmon streams.

Power dams blocked spawning access, and logging, draining and diking of valley bottoms eliminated side channels and spawning and rearing areas for fish.

Salmon harvest peaked in the Northwest during World War I. When runs declined, hatcheries came on line to fill in the slack. As Montgomery explains, they only compounded the problems for wild fish. As in Europe centuries earlier, state regulation was lax. Even with salmon in an acknowledged crisis, from the 1970s through the '90s, commercial and sport fisheries were allowed to harvest 60 percent to 90 percent of the runs.

Currently, salmon returns to Northwest rivers amount to 6 percent to 7 percent of historic runs. But as Montgomery reminds us, salmon are nothing if not resilient. Their quick return to rivers draining Mount St. Helens following its eruption dramatized that.

Based on his studies of rivers and his review of the historic record, Montgomery offers four common-sense steps needed to recover salmon. He recommends: a network of River Keepers to oversee restoration efforts and report destructive activities; a system of sanctuaries where rivers and salmon can carry out natural processes unmolested; a 5- to 10-year fishing moratorium on all at-risk runs, and a maximum 50 percent harvest of returning salmon.

If these measures seem radical, it may be because our current, consensus-driven restoration efforts are meek by comparison. Montgomery presents a clear, insightful analysis of a crisis centuries in the making. To his credit, he points to a sound and workable way through it.

Tim McNulty, Special to The Seattle Times
History of Salmon Shows our Repeated Mistakes
Seattle Times Company, November 11, 2003

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