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Feature Salmon

Our Disappearing Pacific Salmon

by John Randolph   |  September 25th, 2012 0

Salmon Without Rivers, a 371-page, hardbound book is a must read for those who care about our disappearing wild salmon. To order a copy ($27.50 plus $5.75 shipping), contact Island Press, (800) 828-1302, www.islandpress.org.

Jim Lichatowich has studied Pacific salmon in the Northwest as a government fisheries scientist for over 30 years. Now he has put down on paper the wisdom he has acquired from his work. Salmon Without Rivers: A History of the Pacific Salmon Crisis is a natural-history account of the seven Pacific salmon species (five in North America) and their epic 40-million-year journey of evolution and survival. Unfortunately, massive forces unleashed by the arrival of Euro-Americans to the Northwest have in the past 150 years brought these magnificent fish to the brink of extinction, despite expensive, and often misdirected, attempts to save them.

Lichatowich is a scientific offspring of the great American ecologist Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac, whose breadth and quality of vision he shares. He sees the intricate natural interconnections that over millennia created the world of the Pacific salmon and the native American “gift economy” that flourished benignly around it. He also understands the disastrous impact of a European “industrial market economy” and its cultural values on the world of the Pacific salmon. The purpose of his book is to “examine the stories that have guided our relationship with salmon” in the Pacific Northwest—a region that Tom Eagan has described as “any place salmon can get to.”

By Eagan’s definition, the Pacific Northwest has shrunk. As Lichatowich points out: “Since the turn of the 20th Century, the natural productivity of salmoninOregon,Washington, California, and Idaho has declined by 80 percent as riverine habitat has been destroyed.”

The author observes: “The voracious appetite of the industrial economy, coupled with the belief that nature could be controlled by man, eventually led to the depletion of the salmon throughout much of the Pacific Northwest. Embedded in the story of that depletion lie lessons that must be learned if we are to find a balance between the natural and industrial economies and restore the salmon.”

He documents the periods of habitat degradation, salmon overharvest and waste, and the misguided, and expensive, creation of a vast hatchery system to replace the vanishing natural reproduction of wild fish. The devastating effects of the industrial economy and its values on the natural balance of the Northwest may be unmatched in human history—in their speed of devastation and their massive, broad-ranging impacts. Only the reduction of the high-plains natural ecosystem by our industrial economy can compete for that dubious distinction (although Canadian author Farley Mowatt might place the Euro-American devastation of the Gulf of St. Lawrence in contention). And no other book has documented so completely the scope and panoramic sweep of this decline—millions of wild salmonids reduced to an estimated several hundred thousand in 150 years, just on the Columbia River system.

Lichatowich notes that cultures thrive on their stories, their heroic myths. The breathtaking story of Manifest Destiny—and the dam building, commercial fishing, logging, vast irrigation projects, dam building and the ecological reduction that it spawned—is being questioned. Our values are changing. We are asking more than what we have accomplished; we are inquiring into what we have done—in the Northwest, on the high plains, and in the rivers of the East.

As Lichatowich notes, “There are hopeful signs that the precarious state of the salmon may be bringing about positive changes in our story. In 1996, a panel of independent scientists acknowledged the failure of our current approach to salmon management and restoration and called for a new conceptual foundation—essentially a new story. In that same year, another comprehensive study of the salmon crisis, this one by the National Research Council, reached a similar conclusion, especially with regard to hatcheries. Key elements of the old story, particularly the assumption that we can improve on nature and simplify the salmon’s ecosystem, are finally beginning to lose credibility among scientists.”

This book is not an indictment of our culture; it’s an historical analysis of what we did and how it affected the natural world that we cherish. The author is hopeful that we can change.

Lichatowich concludes: “I am convinced that the first step in building a culture capable of co-existing with salmon is the cultivation of attentiveness—encouraging people to listen to the world they live in. We need to reconnect with the natural world. As individuals and as a society, we need to pay attention to the land and the rivers—and especially to the consequences of the things we do.”

Echoes of Aldo Leopold.
Salmon Without Rivers, a 371-page, hardbound book is a must read for those who care about our disappearing wild salmon. To order a copy ($27.50 plus $5.75 shipping), contact Island Press, (800) 828-1302, www.islandpress.org.

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