Salmon Without Rivers: A History Of The Pacific Salmon Crisis

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9781559633604: Salmon Without Rivers: A History Of The Pacific Salmon Crisis
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Looks at salmon restoration efforts, including the role of hatcheries, public policy, and the economics of the Pacific Northwest.

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The image of salmon battling upstream through whitewater cataracts to spawn in their birthplace is integral to any happy vision of the Pacific Northwest. Sadly, because they face more insidious obstacles than swift currents, few people today actually witness this remarkable spectacle. Armed with exhaustive research and an ability to synthesize his findings into a concise, readable indictment of the status quo, Jim Lichatowich, a fisheries scientist for 30 years, traces the sudden decline of Northwest salmon populations following the onset of Euro-American settlement. He points a finger at the usual suspects: logging, mining, damming, grazing, irrigation, commercial fishing, and development. Moreover, he cites the political establishment for a failure of nerve. Since the shift from a Native American "gift" economy based on sustainability to a profit economy based on self-interest and short-term financial gain, the historically resilient salmon have met one adversary after another, with little or no help from the legal apparatus charged with their protection. In fact, federal and state governments have responded to the deepening crisis mainly by building fish hatcheries up and down the West Coast. Contrary to the beliefs of entrenched bureaucrats and sport fishermen, says Lichatowich, hatcheries have merely diluted the gene pools of wild stocks while allowing resource extractors to continue their multifarious operations and politicians to shirk their responsibilities. In 1960, for instance, after decades of declining runs, the Washington Department of Fisheries reported, incredibly (and characteristically), that new advanced management techniques would soon result in "salmon without a river"--more welcome news to those who would continue to exploit these iconic fish and their habitat. At the dawn of the 21st century hundreds of hatcheries still operate, yet Northwest salmon populations have decreased 95 percent.

Lichatowich is a learned and persuasive advocate for wild salmon. He's also eloquent, as in this description of his first visit to the Columbia River's Grand Coulee dam:

As I sat there wondering and swatting mosquitoes, the face of the dam lit up. It was the start of the nightly laser show.... Appropriately, the lasers sent a series of large green dollar signs floating through the darkness. Then a series of laser salmon swam across the face of the dam. Here were the ideal salmon, I thought, the fish that fit perfectly into our worldview. We have complete control over them--press a button and they appear; press another and they change from green to red; press another and they swim over the dam. Salmon and dams are compatible--as long as you are not particular about the kind of salmon.
So what to do? Lichatowich opines that we need a new "worldview," one that places natural resources within a context of respect and sustainability. He looks to state and federal governments to enforce the protections already granted by laws like the Endangered Species Act. And he sees evidence that public perceptions may be changing on such issues as habitat conservation and biodiversity; breaching four dams on the lower Snake River to aid fish passage would have been unthinkable even in the early 1990s. Whether this new worldview can save salmon in time is another question. --Langdon Cook

About the Author:

Jim Lichatowich has been a fisheries scientist for twenty-nine years, working for most of that time in salmon management and research in Oregon and Washington. He is a member of three independent teams of scientists investigating the salmon crisis, and has written numerous scientific and technical papers on the history, current status, and future prospects of salmon. His essays have appeared in a variety of publications including Trout magazine, Peninsula magazine, Riverkeeper, and Shirkin Comment.

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