When the Bush administration originally announced its intent to ban ocean fishing of chinook salmon along 700 miles of southern Oregon and Northern California coastline, many people in my hometown sneered their approval (HCN, 3/6/06: Fishermen blamed for salmon troubles).
With the exception of a brief, limited and most probably token fishing season last summer, Idaho’s upper Salmon River Basin has been closed to salmon anglers since 1978. Residents of these most-inland reaches of salmon have long felt maligned and ignored by downriver anglers who have continued to reap the cultural and economic benefits of the dwindling runs.
For decades, agencies and individuals have worked to improve the inland salmon population’s chances of survival, at no small cost. Ranchers and loggers in my part of Idaho have shouldered much of the blame, because of allegations that the salmon would thrive if only the water was cleaner. As a result, the timber industry exited the area a decade ago, and ranchers have spent millions changing irrigation practices and fencing to keep cows out of streams and rivers. Local hatcheries rear millions of juvenile salmon, but only a tiny fraction of those have made the approximately 1,800-mile round-trip to the ocean and back since the eighth dam was constructed on the Columbia River system in 1975.
So I can’t fault my neighbors who say: If we can’t fish, nobody along the way should be able to, either.
But our community should know better than most that when people lose their connection with this majestic, incredible creature, they stop caring about the survival of the species. When Oregon Congressman David Wu, D, says the people of the Pacific Northwest will lose their way of life if salmon fishing is banned, he is not exaggerating. Chinook season on the Upper Salmon used to be a tradition here as deeply rooted as autumn elk hunts. People from throughout the Inland Northwest would venture to Stanley, Challis and Salmon with their families to catch chinook weighing 20 or 30 pounds each.
Today, local schoolchildren on a field trip to a fish hatchery can’t fathom that the huge shadows swimming in concrete tanks belong in the narrow river that runs through the middle of their remote mountain towns. So when Wu tells a group of commercial and sport fishermen in Oregon that he is going to take a dump truck full of dead salmon to the steps of the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration regional office in August, I say, that we in central Idaho should go along for the long, stinky ride.
When we see and touch — or even smell — these fish, we acknowledge their existence. When no one fishes for the salmon, they become invisible.
This is exactly what the hydropower industry wants. If we would all just accept that migrating salmon and massive concrete dams are incompatible, they could stop this profit-gobbling business of fish recovery and get on with churning out electricity. If no one is making a living from harvesting fish, or preparing a meal from fresh-caught salmon, or watching the chinook spawn in a river they have returned to for centuries, then who cares?
While Rep. Wu rallies behind the customs and symbolism the salmon represent in the Pacific Northwest, Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, R, has been making headlines for trying to abolish the Fish Passage Center, a small group of scientists tasked with counting salmon and then telling us how many are in the river (HCN, 12/12/05: A bullet for the bearer of bad news). Craig’s antics remind the sparsely populated interior that its senator is fighting for the culture of electricity.
Those who talk salmon recovery like to describe the combined effects of the so-called four H’s — habitat, hatcheries, harvest and hydropower. But the reality, according to academics such as Keith Petersen, author of the fascinating River of Life, Channel of Death, is that the eight dams in the Columbia River system account for 95 percent of fish mortality. While fishermen in Florence, Ore., will now lose their boats because of harvest restrictions, and ranchers in central Idaho could lose their livelihoods in the name of habitat improvement, both are being sacrificed to solve less than 5 percent of the problem.
I support David Wu and his guerrilla-theater plan to get in the faces of federal fishery managers. But what if people on both ends of the Columbia River system, and everyone in between, started tossing rotting salmon morsels on those who turn up their hot-water heaters too high? No serious scientist or observant layperson believes sport or commercial fishermen are the reason for the species’ decades-long dance with extinction. The millions of Westerners addicted to cheap electricity bear that responsibility.