Save Our Salmon, Save Our Soul

By Hathorn, Clay | The Nation, January 6, 1992 | Go to article overview

Save Our Salmon, Save Our Soul


Hathorn, Clay, The Nation


Save Our Salmon, Save Our Soul

If the Pacific Northwest has any soul, it rests in a strong, tasty and bug-eyed fish, the salmon. As with many of the region's denizens, it's an adventuresome beast: It runs rivers, explores seas, climbs mountains but always returns home. As a fisherman's catch it is thrilling. "I have lived!" Rudyard Kipling wrote after fishing salmon in the Columbia River. "The American continent may now sink under the sea, for I have taken the best it yields." For Native Americans, salmon represents both food and religion.

But the Northwest has sold this soul for cheap power. The Columbia River system - the biggest salmon freeway in the Lower 48 - is stitched with hydroelectric dams that produce the country's cheapest power, 40 percent cheaper than the national average. The dams not only fire industry, they supply water to make cropland out of rangeland, they channel rivers to ship freight, and they slaughter salmon by the millions. The number of wild salmon are 4 percent of what they were before the dams were built.

A debate is now raging over protecting the salmon. The federal government has listed one strain of the fish as protected under the Endangered Species Act and is considering listing three other strains. The topic is far-reaching. It strikes vital nerves - electric bills and fishing spots. In a year when the aforementioned act is up for Congressional reauthorization, it also promises to reveal whether the government, and specifically the Bush Administration, gives a flip about saving wildlife. As such, it stirs some blood, with Northwesterners making their excited claims: Fish or power. Power or fish.

Yet the issue isn't about fish or power; it's about fish and power. Even environmentalists like low electric bills. On a separate river, the Elwha in Washington's Olympic Peninsula, dam removal is a possibility for salmon restoration, but that's not the strategy for the Columbia. Conservationists, joined with sport fishing groups and native tribes, are looking for shifts in some standard procedures - for instance, reducing energy consumption so production can be slowed during salmon migration. Admittedly, some of these changes will alter economies, but they aren't nearly as rude as those imposed on the salmon. Fish and power. The salmon's allure and the attractiveness of hydropower - friendlier than most other energy forms - bring together forces that could forge a model

Clay Hathorn is a freelance writer living in Seattle who writes frequently on fishery issues. of nature and civilization cohabiting. And, it's as close to a fair fight between nature and civilization as we're likely to see.

Tumbling from Canada south through Washington State until a wicked bend west along the Oregon border takes it to the Pacific Ocean, the Columbia is one mean river. It moves a quarter-million cubic feet of water per second to the ocean, enough for 30 million drought-dried Californians to drink a glass of water every second - or so calculates the Seattle Times, which also calls the Columbia "North America's biggest power plant." The river and its tributaries contain the world's largest hydroelectric system, with fifty-one dams. The major projects began in the New Deal days and have boosted manufacturing, agriculture and transportation.

Before the dams, a mere sixty years ago, this was wide-open country. Millions of salmon navigated the rivers, providing subsistence for native tribes, which celebrate the fish's anadromous qualities. Washington's Tulalips believe the first returning salmon of the season, called Big Chief King Salmon, is a scout sent from salmon at sea and that if they treat it well and return its remains to the water - after eating it - the fishing season will be good.

But the salmon populations are sinking like bones in the river. Before the dams, an estimated 10 million to 16 million wild salmon and steelhead returned to spawn in the waters where they were hatched.

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