Restoring Pacific Salmon
(The Business Journal, September 16, 1994)
By Richard Carson
A recent newspaper headline announced, "Scientists watch fish spawn on space shuttle Columbia." What a coincidence. Scientists are also watching fish spawn in another Columbia -- the river. Why is it that as we accumulate more data and increase our knowledge of the Pacific salmon, their stocks decrease? There is an inverse relationship between humanity's tendency to study the plight of another species and the life expectancy of that species.
So where did all the Coho go? I spent the last six months chasing that question for the State Land Board. I learned that the Coho and other wild Pacific salmon have been beset by a debilitating array of human activities:
- Commercial overharvesting since the mid-l800s.
- Physical barriers such as power generating dams, irrigation diversion dams and drainage culverts.
- Degradation of the water quality from urban sewerage and runoff as well as rural agricultural and forest practices.
- Gravel removal and placer mining in spawning and rearing habitat.
- Hatchery fish that displace indigenous stocks from their habitat and prey on their young.
There are also natural occurrences that play a role in the decline of the salmon:
- A recent increase in the number of marine mammal predators such as sea lions.
- El Nino has increased the ocean temperature in the California current since the 1950s.
By virtue of sheer numbers the proof is now irrefutable -- in Oregon the Sockeye salmon is gone and the Coho salmon is close behind. After 100 years, human activity has brought the salmon species in Oregon, Washington and. California to the point where they are extinct in 38 percent of the region and imperiled in 56 percent.
Throughout history Oregonians have revered the Pacific salmon -- from its ancient tribal mythology to its present day scientific mystery. However, the salmon is changing from being a 20th century commodity to being a 21st century symbol of our changing values. It has become a metaphor for our struggle to balance Oregon's population growth with its scenic beauty. In the Northwest, as in America, this generational change of values has moved us from being passively reverent to being active stewards of the environment.
Unfortunately, the rate of negative environmental change is always faster than the human ability to understand and react. For example, the Endangered Species Act is only the canary in the coal mine. It is a minimalist public policy we've established to wait for some other species to be in its death throes before we start to worry about our own future.
The good news is that if we can stop the human assault on the Pacific salmon there is still hope. That hope lies in the fact that evolution heals nature and strives to increase species diversity. Genetic diversification is nature's way of hedging against the future. In the process of creating genetic diversity within a species lies the survival of the species, an elegant solution we humans often fail grasp about our own racial and ethnic diversity.
I suggest there are three steps we must take now to save the salmon. First, restoration of salmon stocks must be done by reestablishing functional ecosystems. To achieve this we need to identify reference sites intact natural sites -- as benchmarks for how these functional ecosystems actually work terms of hydrology, vegetation and morphology. This means investing more in habitat restoration than in fish hatchery production.
Second, we must change public policy from the multiple use model of "we can have it all" to a more restorative approach. The ecosystem must be allowed to evolve and restore itself -- but first must shift from harvest management to ecosystem management.
One of the things I have learned is that government has not made the same paradigm shift as the American public. Historically many state agencies such as Fish and Wildlife, State Lands and Forestry have been charged with regulating the resource extraction industries.
Their operating budgets are subsidized by the harvesting of trees, minerals and salmon. As the environmental movement gained momentum, these same agencies started adding a new breed of professionals -- people who were charged with environmental protection.
Unfortunately, this has caused a kind of bureaucratic psychosis. These agencies now have conflicting missions -- harvest and protect! It's like a police department changing its motto from "protect and serve" to "protect and shoot." A major reorganization of government needs to occur that addresses this duality. I suggest that the state's Department of Environmental Quality take over the role of environmental guarantor for flora and fauna, just as it is supposed to do for people. Let the other agencies continue to sell fishing and hunting licenses and timber. However, we also need a separate agency with the clear mission as advocate for endangered species and ecosystem management.
Third, we must create a public policy forum flexible enough to integrate the many voices at the international, national, state and local watershed level. Today there is no state or federal level coordinated salmon protection program in place.
Ecosystems can never be fully understood by humans no matter how much we try to compartmentalize and analyze them. It is important that we stop trying to impose our economic and organizational theories on nature. The day we learn to stop engineering nature is the day that evolution starts to heal nature.
Richard Carson is a resident of Beaverton who writes on urban planning, natural resource and environmental issues.