Can We Save the Pacific Northwest Salmon?

Article excerpt

It is hard to tell someone from outside the Pacific Northwest how important the salmon is to the fabric of that region. Revered by Native Americans, sought after by sport fishermen, and regarded as a cash crop by an entire industry, the salmon is a symbol of the independence of the people who live here.

The salmon swam upstream into the culture and legend of the Pacific Northwest with a fierceness practically unknown in the natural world. In nature's cycle, juvenile salmon emerge from the gravel of streams in the Northwest high country and set out on ajoumey of hundreds of miles to the ocean. If they are fortunate enough to live through the trip - and the great majority of them do not - the juveniles mature for two or three years in the Pacific Ocean, then undertake one of the most incredible odysseys in nature. They swim against the cuffent of one of the largest river systems in the hemisphere and return to their birthplace to spawn a new generation.

This unique homing instinct is what created the salmon legend. The silver and red fish of the Pacific Northwest became icons in the Native American culture. The salmon was carved onto totem poles and celebrated in ancient songs, and, for centuries, was the sustaining source of food for the people.

Today, the legend is nearly all that is left. A crisis grips the Pacific Northwest because of the changes that development has wrought on the forests and river systems. The fish runs that long have symbolized the region's unique quality of life, especially the upriver runs, cling to a pre-carious existence.

Dozens of salmon runs from four western states are in trouble. Reversing the course toward extinction for many species of the salmon depends on how much national attention and support northwesterners can generate.

National commitment is needed to bring about a long-term restoration of the migration routes and freshwater habitats that limit the production of wild salmon and steelhead. That commitment needs to come from the top. For that reason, I joined with the governors of three western states - Mike Lowry of Washington, Barbara Roberts of Oregon, and Pete Wilson of California - to ask Pres. Clinton to appoint one person accountable to him alone to make certain that the Endangered Species Act is administered efficiently and fairly. Only direction from the top, we believe, will keep the many Federal agencies involved in this issue from contradicting each other and will enable the U.S., for the first time, to establish an ecosystem-management approach to addressing the decline of the Pacific salmon.

Land use has affected coastal salmon runs, but man's intrusion is particularly apparent further upstream. The Snake River sockeye salmon, in effect, is the canary in the mine shaft for the entire West Coast. The fish have been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act; between 1990 and 1992, only five of them retumed to Redfish Lake in Idaho to spawn. Moreover, the Snake River chinook - the legendary fighter known as the "king" salmon - is threatened with extinction.

The vast drainage that once contained the largest chinook salmon and steelhead runs in the world - an area the size of France - was altered dramatically to tap its tremendous hydropower potential. Between 1928 and 1975, eight dams were constructed between the Columbia Gorge, near Portland, Ore., and the Idaho border. Many factors have contributed to the decline of Northwest salmon runs, but only one-the eight giant Federal dams and the intransigent agencies that operate them - put the fish at the brink of extinction.

In 1992, American Rivers declared the Columbia and Snake rivers "the most endangered river system in the country." Then, late in 1992, the Wilderness Society predicted extinction for nine of the 10 major salmon species in the Pacific Northwest if radical changes aren't made in the management of the region's natural resources. …

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