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Salmon at the End of the Twentieth Century
Location: Northwest Pacific Watersheds

We have poisoned our water and paved our wetlands, clear-cut our forests and damned our rivers. We wonder why the salmon runs are disappearing.

Every spring since 1972, on the south bank of the outwash pool at Lower Granite Dam, half the chinook, sockeye, and steelhead born in the upper Snake River begin life-saving but somehow pathetic barge rides to the sea. There, and downstream at Little Goose, Lower Monumental, and McNary dams, hustling crews wearing white hard hats load salmon in round-the-clock extravaganzas of concrete raceways, pumps, pipelines, and floodlights. At night, the Corps of Engineers' Columbia River Juvenile Fish Transportation effort is reminiscent of a science fiction techno-scape: remote, well-lit, organized, and urgent.

On each two-day trip aboard the gray and peach-colored steel barges, hundreds of thousands of young salmon hover in a netherworld of bubbling tanks, tended by a crew to net the few dead floaters and see to the diesels that run the aeration systems. Most of the salmon survive the trip downstream, and a sense of rescue abides in the workers, biologists, and bureaucrats.

Without the barges, most of the salmon would perish in the turbines or reservoirs of the eight dams built and run by the Corps between Lower Granite and the free-flowing river at Bonneville. The dams themselves are epic constructs, castle-like in their denial of scale until you are alongside, entering a navigation lock that raises or lowers a traveling barge a hundred feet or more from reservoir pool to outfall.

Less than a century ago, the young fish would have made the downriver journey on their own, with hundreds of millions of their kind in two or three weeks, transported by flowing water. The modern river system - a disorienting chain of lakes, concrete, and hubris - fails to meet the salmon's natural instincts.

The intricacies of a salmon's genetic code insist that it face upstream, into the current, and navigate to the sea tail first. Along the way, the signals, cues, and cautions of the river world are in rapids, falls, riffles, and eddies, each laden with distinct aromas and the nourishment of the riparian food web.

The undammed Columbia and its tributaries offered 12,935 miles of pristine habitat to 15 to 20 million salmon, weaving them into a watershed that drains a quarter of a million square miles.

In 1994, we have traded the ancient, free-running spawning habitat for 7.6 million acres of irrigated farmland, cheap timber, and the power from 136 dams to drive commerce and development.

Our first stab at creating a new ecological partnership with salmon was simply to grow more of them. The Americans built their first hatchery for Pacific salmon in 1872 on the McCloud River in California; the first in Canada was on the Fraser at Bon Accord, near what is now a suburb of Vancouver. Early on, the North Americans focused on chinooks, and even tried using them to restock depleted runs of Atlantic salmon on the East Coast; this was unworkable because Salmo and Oncorhynchus are of different species. Japan imported modern salmon hatchery methods and technology from the United States and Canada in 1889. Soon after, chinook eggs from Pacific Northwest hatcheries were shipped as far away as Australia and New Zealand, where they took hold.

Hatcheries for egg production and enhancement of natural runs were so successful that the dam builders counted on them to heal the rivers. In the 1930s, when Grand Coulee Dam destroyed every inch of spawning habitat in 1,000 miles of the entire upper Columbia, people wrote songs about building dams, building fish, and our dominion over nature.

Government and dam-building agencies operated most hatcheries until the 1970s; Alaskans voted to allow what they called "private, non-profit hatcheries." Most people refer to this kind of salmon-making as "ranching." You hatch the fish in controlled conditions with far greater than natural survival rates, turn them out to pasture-the ocean-and wait for their return the next summer or in two, three, or four years.

However, in 1993, only fragments of the expected runs of both wild and ranch pink salmon returned to Prince William Sound, home of the world's biggest hatcheries and, in 1989, site of America's worst oil spill from the Exxon Valdez. Lack of food and possible interbreeding with hatchery fish, which can lessen survival ability, might account for the low return.

At about the time the success of hatcheries and ocean ranches peaked in the mid-1970s, a professor at the University of Washington was refining the tools and methods for the next step in domestication: salmon farming, which would maintain salmon in captivity from birth to dinner table, like chickens or beeves.

By 1993, the Norwegian, Canadian, Irish, Chilean, Japanese, Russian, American, and New Zealand farmers were producing about 250,000 tons of salmon each year out of total world production of about 800,000 tons.

The farms have almost collapsed more than once when a disease or a plankton bloom that kills salmon but doesn't hurt human consumers kills the fish along an entire coast. Tons of salmon end up on the market at the same time, driving down the price. Commercial fishermen loathe the farms because they compete directly with the wild or hatchery salmon. More profoundly, farmed salmon seem so terribly unnatural to those fishermen and other people whose lives are entwined with the wild fish. And the flesh of farmed salmon is not as firm, the color often a pale imitation of the redder wild salmon.

The extinction of a run of salmon somehow weakens us, whether we understand the details or not. We sense the same panic and passion that rose in us when we stood a death watch over Martha, the very last passenger pigeon on earth. She died on September 1, 1914, in the Cincinnati zoo; now, Martha is stuffed and perched on a branch in a glass case in the Smithsonian Institution, reminding us that extinction for profit and commerce is a dreadful by-product of our civilization.

Lonesome Larry, a sockeye that probably rode one of those barges from Lower Granite, now reposes, mounted, in the office of the governor of Idaho. In the hands of a fisheries biologist, Larry gave his milt to fertilize the last female eggs of his species, and then died. He was born in Redfish Lake, joined by a tributary to the Snake, then to the Columbia, then to the Pacific Ocean. In 1992, the federal fisheries agency declared Larry and the handful of other surviving Redfish sockeye to be endangered, and placed the run under care as wards of the people of the United States and the world. They declared other Columbia River runs to be threatened, also requiring special protection.

By law, the governments of the United States, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Alaska and, by treaty, British Columbia, Japan, and Russia, must all pay special attention to the spawn of Lonesome Larry. Biologists will hatch and rear his offspring in captivity until enough of them are around to risk a trip downstream. The Bonneville Power Authority, Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, and the owners of other dams in the watershed are also supposed to be cooperating to save Larry and his kin.

"When you have a system that is so altered from its natural state, it's hard to know what to do for the salmon," said one of the biologists who works on the Columbia barges that, ultimately, are not saving the salmon. "Maybe nothing. But I really can't stand that. I just can't."

Excerpted from Reaching Home: Pacific Salmon, Pacific People, Copyright 1994, with permission Alaska Northwest Books, an Imprint of Graphic Arts Center Publishing Company.