The News Tribune - Tacoma, Washington U.S.A.--

Your Voice: Let salmon show us the way

June 01,1998

Jane Gamble

The salmon populations of the Pacific Northwest are imperiled for many reasons, all of which indicate an imbalance in our approach to the environment and the resources in that environment.

The salmon are almost a metaphor for what has happened to the ecosystems of the region. Like an indicator species, the decline of these wild fish marks an illness in the natural world. Too often we fail to see the sickness of our own environment until, like the salmon, it is belly-up and beyond help.

I believe that the health of economic and social systems is intrinsically linked with the well-being of ecosystems, and it is important to keep this in mind when discussing the changes and sacrifices that are involved in preserving a species. It is a provocative notion that in saving the salmon we will ultimately be saving ourselves, but surely it is a concept worthy of careful consideration.

There are multiple factors affecting the ability of wild salmon populations to survive. Overfishing is certainly one, and tighter controls on catch limits is one way to protect the surviving numbers. Just in the past few weeks, the state closed much of Puget Sound to chinook fishing for the first time. All across the region, these sorts of closures are becoming more common, as the dwindling numbers of salmon fall ever lower.

The dams of the Columbia and Snake rivers are another enormous factor in the salmon crisis. The numbers are clear, and the concern is well addressed: The dams seriously hinder the salmon in their efforts to return to natal streams and significantly reduce the number of smolts migrating to the open ocean.

The history of the dams, the politics of their construction and the ramifications of human demand for cheap electricity, subsidized irrigation and unimpeded river access are complex and multi-dimensional. The damming of a powerful body of water is a Herculean task, and its effect is felt in every ripple of the communities that live by and on the river.

There simply are no right or wrong answers when we consider what to do with the dams. The crops grown in Eastern Washington require irrigation from impounded rivers in order to grow. Farmers require barges to move those crops. Bargemen require smooth waters in which to safely transport the harvest. Businesses require cheap hydroelectricity to power the stores that sell the harvest. We require low-priced produce when we shop in those markets.

As for the salmon, they require an intact ecosystem in which to spawn, feed, grow and die. Inevitably, the salmon, which are least able to compromise in the midst of all these requirements, are the ones that are most compromised by the needs of others.

Too much is invested in the existence of the 16 dams that control and alter the flow of the Columbia River to ever suppose that they will be breached for the sake of a species. We are forced to find other ways to help the salmon survive. We barge the turbine-vulnerable smolts around the dams, speeding their course to the sea. We work to restore salmon spawning ground by preventing siltation from poor logging practices and erosion from cattle-grazing. We limit fishing and extend protection to threatened and endangered salmon runs. We raise hatchery fish and hope they do not create more problems by genetically weakening wild runs than they solve by strengthening population counts.

Still, it seems as if this is all too little too late. The fate of the endangered wild salmon of the Pacific Northwest is a case study in remediation. We will tackle the problem from every side, and still it may not be enough.

Hopefully, our efforts will at least teach us how to mobilize more swiftly and effectively when the next crisis of species preservation presents itself. At the rate we are going, we may not have long to wait for that next battle. The critical thing to remember is that the enemy in these struggles is not the salmon, the spotted owl or the snail-darter - it is us. The fight against extinction must be waged in our own camps, against our own short-term self-interests. In this war against wants, let us emblazon our shields with the image of a wild salmon, and let us hope that it can be the living symbol of a battle won.

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Jane Gamble is a Tacoma resident majoring in environmental studies at the University of Washington Tacoma