The Salmon Are Calling

The great wild fish that have filled our plates and our souls are dying. By learning to save them, we may save ourselves.

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The week of my birthday in 1981, a stroke of luck dropped me at a salmon-counting station on the Naknek River, a tundra artery in Alaska that empties into the Bering Sea. As it has for centuries, the river throbbed with millions of salmon riding the peak of the solar waltz into a new generation. In their metamorphic overture to reproducing themselves, the beautiful silver voyagers were becoming hook-nosed, humpbacked nightmares in shades of bad bruises. At the counting station, set in a muddy oxbow on the river, a rookie biologist had staked a snow-white tarp from bank to bank, against which he could better see passing salmon. Every half hour, through the 20-hour subarctic summer days, he or his assistant would climb a 30-foot tower of aluminum tubing and plywood to count them.

The point was to gauge the limits of the fishery about 10 miles downstream in Bristol Bay, where thousands of fishermen, processors, and peddlers were going for broke in the six-week season. The bay had been the mother lode for packing companies since the turn of the century, when square-riggers sailed north from San Francisco and Seattle carrying fishermen, dories, laborers, and lumber to build canneries. Those canneries represented the northernmost extreme of an orgy of industrial salmon packing that nearly extinguished most of the runs on the Sacramento, Columbia, and Fraser rivers, and hundreds of smaller watercourses on the Pacific coast. By the mid-1930s, frightened by what had happened to such an obviously sustainable, renewable source of food, commercial and political leaders clamped down on the most obvious destroyer of salmon–fishermen. (Meanwhile, of course, the habitat destruction caused by dams and urban development was ignored.) And so the biologist in Alaska counted salmon for five minutes each half hour to create a statistical sample that would tell fishery managers if enough fish were in the river to ensure the next generation. If not, the fishing stopped.

The salmon came in waves to the edge of the white tarp, then hovered there as though shocked by the variation in the bark-brown water and the cobbled streambed until, in a rush, 100 or so would brave the threat and be off to the lake. They rolled over each other and splashed furiously, careening against the cut bank on one side of the river and up onto a gravel bar on the other. When I closed my eyes, they sounded like a whitewater rapids, or, sometimes, like a hard rain crackling on corn leaves. Their fins, though already disintegrating from the mortal struggle upstream, turned the surface of the river into a living thing.

At that moment I realized I had become captivated by these ancient beings, members of the family Salmonidae, who had already been around for eons by the time our own most ancient primate ancestors showed up 4 million years ago. The oldest undoubted salmon fossil is Eosalmo, literally “dawn salmon,” a fresh water fish that lived 50 million years ago. During the Miocene epoch, 10 to 15 million years ago, salmon were giants with fangs, great beasts 10 feet long, weighing 500 pounds. Paleoichthyologists named them Smilodonichthys rastrosus, sabretooth salmon, and still find traces of them in the fossil record. Modern Pacific salmon–Oncorhynchus, or hook nose–emerged 2 million years ago, then, as now, creatures of the ice, rivers, and oceans.

These fish that are born in streams, grow in the ocean, and return to nourish all manner of living things were once ubiquitous, at least in the northern hemisphere. In Europe, they spawned as far upstream as Zurich until people wore out those rivers. Colonial farmers in New England hay-forked them up from streams to fertilize their fields. And around the Pacific Rim, entire religions and intricate ceremonies were woven from their miraculous, life-giving arrivals and departures.

The fish in the Naknek that year on my birthday were sockeye, the species with the most complicated anadromous (the word means down-running) patterns of migrating to the sea after a year or two in fresh water. They feed for two to four years in the sea, and return to their particular kind of spawning habitat, a chain of lakes connected by free-flowing rivers. The six other species of Pacific salmon are also anadromous, but most are more fixed in their fresh and salt water migrations than sockeye. We have named them all in a litany of river, season, and species, identifying them with the watershed to which they are as inexorably bound as cells in a bloodstream: Copper River king (healthy), Skagit River fall coho (endangered), Chimacum Creek fall chum (extinct), Taku River pink (healthy), and hundreds of others. All share similar strategies for survival and for delivering their genetic message to the next generation. And all are semelparous, which means they die after spawning once.

We are in awe of the distances they travel and their astounding return to the exact point on earth where they emerged from their egg sacs (if, of course, their stream has not been blocked, poisoned, or destroyed). The intricacies of a salmon’s genetic code insist that the salmon always faces upstream, into the current, so that when it navigates to the sea it swims tail first. Instream and near shore, a salmon’s course is probably set by a combination of rheotaxis–detection of the direction of flow–and an ability to sense temperature changes and combinations of smells from distinct watersheds. The salmon’s sense of smell is thousands of times more acute than a dog’s. A salmon can probably detect one part per trillion by smell, or, in martini equivalents, roughly one drop of vermouth in 500,000 barrels of gin.

At sea, salmon do not wander aimlessly. They clearly orient themselves in some way, and swim homeward with precision equaling electronically equipped ocean sailors. Celestial, solar, and sonar explanations for the salmon’s ability to find its way have been explored and, generally, dismissed. Recently, an electromagnetic solution to the puzzle of oceanic salmon migration has come to seem most plausible. The earth’s magnetic

field produces an infinitely divided, arcing grid of extremely low-voltage currents, so a salmon or any other creature capable of detecting that voltage could track an arc on the grid that would lead it back to its starting point.

Since the last century, industrial commerce and Manifest Destiny have transformed these beautiful swimmers into a commodity. Salmon have always, and perfectly, been food, but advances in shipping and storage enabled them to be consumed long distances away from their watershed habitats, thus disturbing the intricate relationships of the local, natural economy in favor of the global, industrial economy. Consumers in the global markets associate salmon with cans and shrink-wrap, not streambeds and watersheds–and thus they have failed to comprehend how dams, logging, and urban development have destroyed the salmon’s habitat and decimated their numbers.

Now, wild Atlantic salmon are so rare as to be considered priceless treasures, and we are inexorably chewing up the watershed habitat and runs on the Pacific. This year, for instance, all sport and commercial salmon fishing was banned along the Washington coast because too few fish were returning. The United States and Canada are horn-to-horn in a diplomatic battle for rights to dwindling runs on the international border. And in the Russian Far East and as far south as Korea, the once great Asian runs have all but vanished in the haze of habitat destruction.

In Oregon and California, spawning runs to most streams are whispers of their former selves. Hundreds of runs have been completely extinguished, and others now support so few salmon that we protect them under the Endangered Species Act, our last ditch in the scarred, conflicted landscape on which human beings and the rest of nature collide. Only in sparsely populated Alaska are salmon faring well as we round the bend into the 21st century, and even there, in the Southeast panhandle, logging is destroying streams with silt, erosion, debris, and the increased heat of exposed terrain.

When Lewis and Clark entered the lush Pacific watersheds in 1804, they noted that “the multitudes of fish are almost inconceivable.” Then, the undammed dominant river, the Columbia, offered 12,935 linear miles of pristine habitat to 15 to 20 million salmon a year, weaving them into a watershed that drains a quarter of a million square miles. About 70,000 people lived in the Columbia basin. In 1994, more than 6 million people are crowded against the life force of that watershed. We have traded the ancient, free-running spawning habitat for 7.6 million acres of irrigated farmland, cheap timber, and the power from 136 dams.

Until now, we have responded to the plight of the salmon as just another engineering challenge because our culture is freighted with the notion that humans have dominion over nature. For most of our nation’s history, farms, dams, timber, mines, and grazing land have been part of a vision of paradise in which engineers were priests. Salmon and other wild animals became commodities, and the forces of nature mere puzzles with certain solutions.

When, by the 1930s, we finally realized that killing all the salmon was bad for business, most of us remained oblivious to the intricacies of the natural economy. The way to keep the canneries running and the sportsmen satiated, we decided, was simply to build more salmon, and hatcheries were touted as the salmon savers. But the same struggling ecosystem that supports wild fish also must support hatchery fish. Now, with the hatchery fable exposed by the continuing declines in salmon runs, the global fish industry is trying to tell us that salmon farming is the answer to what is merely a commodity shortage. But pen-rearing salmon creates pollution problems and removes us even further from responsible stewardship of the marine food web, leaving the watershed upon which wild runs depend unprotected even by the force of the marketplace.

In the 13 years since my birthday at the counting station, we have finally started to realize through the fog of our hubris that the fragile harmonies of healthy hillsides, bays, and estuaries are critical to the continued health of human beings in those places, too. Less familiar vanishing species like spotted owls, snail darters, and thousands of others have failed to deliver the news powerfully enough to force change. Salmon, though, seem to be able to drive home this point clearly and loudly because so many of us live on the coastal drainages, and these fascinating fish rub up against enough of us to deliver an undeniable message about environmental distress.

It is not enough simply to manufacture more salmon in farms and hatcheries and do little or nothing to restore their natural watersheds and oceanic habitat. Vanishing salmon signal a commodity crisis, but more profoundly, they are telling us that something is amiss in the way we engage ourselves in the sprockets of the natural world. We have been bound to a paradigm that places human beings in the center of life’s web with the power to control natural systems, but through salmon we are beginning to see that the destruction of the wild diminishes us immensely. And unless we transform our way of inhabiting the earth it is becoming clear that the continued extinction of runs of wild salmon is a harbinger of our own extinction.

The photographs of Natalie Fobes, with essays by Brad Matsen and Tom Jay, appear in “Reaching Home: Pacific Salmon, Pacific People,” published in October by Alaska Northwest Books. Matsen collaborated with illustrator Ray Troll on “Blues in the Key of Sea” (Mother Jones, July/August 1994) and on a new book, “Planet Ocean,” from Ten Speed Press.


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