Pacific salmon are a little like seagoing golden retrievers. Only instead of drool-slimed tennis balls, they retrieve nutrients lost from the land and gobbled up by an assortment of plankton (free-floaters) and nekton (swimmers) in the oceanic water column. Their dogged inland migration over millennia and suicidal sacrifice for their offspring in large part helped make the Northwest’s coastal river valleys the agricultural powerhouses enjoyed by humans for tens of thousands of years.
Yet as perfect and as beneficial as this salmon nutrient retrieval machine was, we changed it in a handful of generations. We essentially brought it down to its trembling pectoral fins in a good portion of its historic eastern Pacific range. How? We threw grit in its gears every time we removed the filtering function of riparian vegetation and increased the silt-sliding imperviousness of our urban hardscapes. We shattered the great engine’s virtual pistons with each dam we built and every tributary we compromised with corrugated culvert. And we caused it further insults by mistaking its most essential inner-workings as a refuse removal system for all that was deemed waste and no longer needed.
As we accelerated growth during the last century, the system that loyally supported agriculture and forestry through the ages ironically became the victim of both and their associated economic growth. And we in our nearly infinite folly and hubris cast off the bounty of this perpetual and low maintenance larder through our poor stewardship. Somehow, we thought it easier to work harder and get a lesser quality result.
The whole tragic process has left us poorer by far from the loss of effortless and nearly perpetual fertility and a dependable food source to the diminished recreation opportunities and the indescribable, Chinook-sized hole left in our collective heart. Think I am full of hooey on this last point? Look at any stretch of creek or river and think how that waterway is changed in a fleeting second by a leaping Coho or running Humpy. I don’t care if you have the fishing gene or not, doesn’t everyone’s heart pump harder with each electric tail flip and silver flash observed?
Is this Pacific salmon situation isolated? Certainly not! John McPhee wrote with a sense of awe and loss about the economic and social importance of the once plentiful Chesapeake shad in his book The Founding Fish. Perhaps a chocolate Labrador in this analogy, the fish that made early America economically possible was cast aside much like the Pacific salmon in favor of more destructive and short-sided enterprises. We see books like McPhee’s or even Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, and seem not to learn or embrace their lessons. And my friend and environmental writer Tom Horton often writes and talks about the march of disappearing fish through time and how each successive generation seems to settle for fewer fish and ultimately a little less wildness.
What if we suddenly got smart? What if we suddenly realized that the economic and social benefits of restoring and keeping Pacific salmon viable and vibrant everywhere within their historic range meant more to us than exported timber, parking lots, fish farms, dams, recreational gold mining, and over-fertilized and pesticide-bathed crops? What if we decided to be the first generation to reverse this awful fish trend and capitalize on the positive example being set on the Elwha? We at Cascadia Wildlands think it is time we pursued this path with vigor and purpose. Long live the King (salmon)—everywhere!
Please work with us to Save Our Wild Salmon Heritage.