Who can argue with equality for all salmon?

  A new policy from the Bush administration on endangered Pacific salmon is startling in its simplicity and brilliance. The policy cuts through all the scientific mumbo-jumbo the press repeats and puts a finger on the basic problem: Salmon are endangered because there aren't enough of them. If there were lots of salmon in the rivers, they wouldn't be endangered. It just stands to reason.

Fortunately, there's a solution all ready to go. The government is currently spending about $40 million a year on fish hatcheries. That's right, these are facilities entirely devoted to raising and releasing fish. And the best part is that lots of the hatcheries are raising Pacific salmon. Not only are these hatcheries capable of releasing millions and millions of salmon into the rivers of the Pacific Northwest every year, they're already doing it!

So, here's what the federal agency responsible for preserving and restoring salmon, is going to do (and really, the only mystery is why it took them so long). The National Marine Fisheries Service is going to count the hatchery salmon along with the wild salmon when they figure out how many salmon there are. Violá! Instead of a few hundred fish in a stream, you've got hundreds of thousands. Nothing endangered about that.

Now, it's true that there are those, like the ivory-tower scientists appointed by the agency to something called the "Salmon Recovery Science Review Panel," who have a problem with this solution. They're obsessed with "habitat," with preserving the "unique adaptations" and "complex behavior" that wild salmon gain by living in the river from the day they were born. It just goes to show the trouble you can get into when you ask "experts" for their opinion.

This group took it upon itself to issue a statement saying, "We know biologically that hatchery supplements are no substitute for wild fish. The science is clear and unambiguous: as they are currently operated, hatcheries and hatchery fish cannot protect wild stocks." Well, excuse us, professors, but maybe you didn't get the memo: This administration doesn't do nuance. A fish is a fish is a fish. You want salmon? We got salmon. You should be thanking federal bureaucrats, not whining.

And let's look at the other side of the equation, shall we? Last time I checked, salmon don't vote, and they definitely don't support the political process through campaign contributions. Whereas power companies, agribusiness, the timber industry — they do support the political process. They're stakeholders. The thing is, salmon are a problem for these good folks; or I should say, wild salmon are.

Salmon can be so picky. They need clean, cold water, which comes out of unlogged watersheds. They don't do well swimming with the pesticides and silt in agricultural runoff. They like natural water flows, which complicate dam operations no end.

All these problem disappear with hatchery salmon. You feed them, they eat. They can't make it past dams? Just put the hatcheries downstream. They need clean, cold water? That's what filters and cooling units are for. They don't breed successfully? No worries: we take care of that for them; we hatch more fish.

When you get right down to it, the problem with wild salmon is that they're not team players. They're just ... out there. No way to keep them on-message. That is not acceptable. The American people are spending millions on these creatures and they have a right to demand accountability.

And what abouts imple gratitude? I don't know if you've ever visited a fish hatchery, but I encourage you to do so. Buy a bag of fish chow from the vending machines, and go over and toss a handful to the baby salmon in the tank. Those little guys — so pretty — practically jump out of their skins to get that chow. Now, that's gratitude.

So, thank you, President Bush. With your leadership, we can let the rivers be dammed and still not lose our salmon; not as long as there are pumps, and tanks and fish chow. At long last, the day of equality for all salmon is finally here.

Pepper Trail is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a conservation biologist who lives and writes (tongue planted firmly in cheek) in Ashland, Oregon.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds