I was raised in a commercial fishing community. I spent most of five years of my childhood on a fish tender. I live on the Kenai Peninsula and for the past seven Septembers I’ve fished for silvers in the Kenai River. (One year for a brief, magical moment I had a king on. It was like hooking onto a bolt of lightning.) Like everyone else on the Kenai I fight the traffic the last two weeks of July when dipnetting season is open. My cousin Hank is a commercial fisherman in Cordova. There have been five kinds of salmon in abundance all around me all of my life.
In this book, David Montgomery says that that abundance could all end in my lifetime. The Atlantic salmon is already down for the count, in Europe and in Canada and the northeastern United States. Almost exactly the same cycle is in evidence on the Pacific Northwest. “Our modern salmon crisis is a strikingly faithful retelling of the fall of Atlantic salmon in Europe, Montgomery writes, “and again later in eastern North America.” Today, the salmon runs of California are all but extinct with the runs in Oregon and Washington too close behind.
Factors influencing salmon abundance, Montgomery writes, are often generalized into four H’s: harvest, hydropower (dams), habitat, and hatcheries. Often overlooked is a fifth H: history. Learning from the past is important for public policy, particularly if policies have objectives such as the protection of rate and endangered species, or if policy failure irreversibly leads to extinction…It is sobering to think that salmon could take the worst nature could throw at them for millions of years–from floods to volcanic eruptions–but that little more than a century of exposure to the side effects of Western civilization could drive them to the edge of extinction.
By harvest Montgomery means overfishing. Right now in Cook Inlet commercial setnetters are fighting with sports fishermen over the king salmon run up the Kenai River, which run has dropped to the point that king sportsfishing has been banned on the river for the last two years. In the meantime out in the Gulf of Alaska and in the Bering Sea fish processors are dragging up the bottom of the north Pacific Ocean, where those kings go to feed before coming home again to spawn the next generation. Those processors are fishing for pollock. Kings are just bycatch to them.
By hydropower he means dams. There are over 70,000 dams in North America, including the ones on the Columbia and Snake Rivers which killed their salmon runs. Right now the state of Alaska wants to build a 735-foot dam on the Susitna River. The dam backers say that Devil’s Canyon, downstream of the proposed dam, acts as a natural impediment to salmon migration. Does it? Are there no salmon runs upriver of the dam site? The dam, when built, could furnish almost half the needed power to railbelt Alaskans. Do we just cross our fingers and build the dam and hope for the best?
By habitat, Montgomery is talking about the degradation of the rivers and streams to which salmon return each year. We’ve been clearing these waterways of the deadfall that protect the gravel spawning beds, we’ve been straightening out waterways to make them more convenient for travel and shipping, and we’ve been developing riverbanks for suburban homes and golf courses which comes with a whole host of problems, not least of which is the grass fertilizer that runs off into and toxifies the spawning habitat (a big problem in Hawaii, too, ask anyone who has ever flown into the islands after a big storm and seen the brown runoff encircling the shores). Montgomery writes
In the end, the degree to which society is willing to give space back to rivers will define the degree to which rivers can recover.
How willing are we? Good question, and one we should spend some time answering, but mostly all we do is fight with each other, commercial fisherman against sports fisherman, developer against preservationist.
Particularly on controversial issues [writes Montgomery] any consensus that satisfies all stakeholders will ultimately sell out the salmon. So reliance on local control and voluntary measures needs to be guided by an overriding strategy that is guaranteed and enforced by a higher authority.
Ask the Kenai River Sportsfishing Association and the United Cook Inlet Drift Association how that’s been working out for them. These people can’t even talk to each other without raising their voices, and in the meantime more kings vanish from the river every year.
Hatcheries? Don’t work. Artificially created runs do not repopulate themselves, and in the meantime they’re competing with natural runs for food and weakening the natural salmon by interbreeding with them. (They also don’t taste near as good.)
“Salmon, writes Montgomery
…are resilient, robust animals that can rapidly colonize new environments. They are more like weeds than like a sensitive bird that can only nest in a special type of tree that occurs in a particular type of forest in a couple of places on earth. Even so, we are managing to drive them to the verge of extinction across much of their range.
In the 1960s, Lowell Wakefield single-handedly started the king crab fishing industry in the Gulf of Alaska. Then, the king crab season started on August 1st and ended on May 31st. I know, as a teenager I worked for pocket money at Wakefield’s in Seldovia. In the 1980s the king crab stocks crashed due to overfishing. Now, the king crab season is ten days in October, or however long it takes to meet their quota. I used to eat king crab fresh out of the water one or two times a week in season. Today, I haven’t seen anything but frozen in years.
It’s too late for the Atlantic salmon, Montgomery says. It’s almost too late for the salmon runs of the western United States. Nevertheless, he says, we should try to save them.
I only wish we would.