As climate cooled 40 to 20 million years ago, streams and rivers decreased in nutrient productivity, and so the sciences says that freshwater fish went anadromous and developed a sea-going life cycle as oceans became rich sources of food.
In this part of the America, the salmon’s evolution linked and adapted to the changes in topography. For millions of years salmon have been here in abundance. In the past 100 years, human evolution in the Pacific Northwest has brought some species of salmon to extinction and has impoverished the continued existence of a sustainable salmon ecosystem.
Salmon have been part of the lifeblood of peoples from Finland, Ireland, Norway, Russia, to Japan and British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest. Salmon sustain the life of a forest, and this species is the link in the natural gear work and framework of an ecosystem that has grown because of the returning spawning salmon.
From the nitrogen in grizzlies’ bones and hair, to the nitrogen in valley-bottom forests, and nutrients fed to gargantuan trees growing along salmon rivers, the salmon has delivered the lifeblood to the forest.
Of course, this is all ancient history. Wild salmon are threatened, and the techno-fixes devised by one of the most creative creatures on earth will be the salmon’s demise.
A twist to the plight of the salmon is now easily accessible to readers. In Seattle recently, David R. Montgomery, geomorphology professor at University of Washington, cast two intertwining threads of history, Europe’s and New England’s, to show how both salmon histories have been repeating themselves in Washington, Oregon and northern California for more than a hundred years. His quick-paced and humorous style helped to compress his book, King of Fish: The Thousand-year Run of Salmon (Westview Press, 2003), which is part science, part history and part folklore concerning salmon and this species’ struggles and the repeated failings of human action and inaction to “save” it.
“In coming to understand the forces shaping the rivers and mountains of the Pacific Northwest, I learned to see how the evolution and near extinction of salmon is a story of changing landscapes,” he stated.
Montgomery was one of many presenters at a conference on sustainability titled, “Building Community, Healing the Planet,” a two-day affair set squarely in the bedrock of conglomerated fields that see connections and links between human society, the environment, economics, and global ethical alliances as vastly more important in solving such problems as global warming, pollution, habitat degradation, human population explosion, inequitable economies, and over-consumption than the current Western paradigm of exponential growth in markets and technologies as solutions to growing global problems.
Montgomery, however, focused on a single topic, deadeye targeting fish and the interrelationship of three distinct human histories.
The cry of “Salmon in Danger!” is now resounding throughout the length and breadth of the land. A few years, a little more overpopulation, a few more tons of factory poisons, a few fresh poaching devices . . . and the salmon will be gone – he will be extinct.
— Charles Dickens, July 20, 1861
Interestingly, Montgomery draws from the genetic slough in a literary riptide where inventive and clearly literate writers swim: David Quammen, Barry Lopez, Richard Bass, Annie Dillard, Jim Lichatowich and David James Duncan and others have set themselves squarely inside the biotic world, allowing the rich poetry of imagery and laments drive what they write.
Montgomery’s written words dip into that same current, and his book is clearly a story of his own wonderment of geological chronology set against historical time. He gives us an overlay of the practices of migration and settling and harvesting and industrializing as well as meshing the original “old” salmon’s 40 to 20 million year evolutionary period to produce a parental species 6 million years ago that is the forebear of all modern salmon species.
Wild salmon advocates know the heuristic of the “four H’s” and each one’s relationship to the decline of salmon: Harvest (over-fishing); Habitat (mining, logging, agriculture and human land development); Hydro-dams; and Hatcheries (add to that farms/aquaculture).
Montgomery chisels a fifth H — the history of human intersection with the salmon’s evolutionary history. It’s an old story of human culture — that malleable and far-spreading diverse set of laws and actions that are passed onto other generations — T-boning right smack into the biological harmony of salmon’s persistency in nature, a consistently challenging realm of the king of fish.
His book covers the similar human patterns of change to river systems in Great Britain 300 years ago and in 19th Century New England, to those now occurring in the Pacific Northwest. The Pacific salmon (five main species) evolved under the shattered light and verdant shadows of old growth forests. They weathered and adapted to thrive under the stressors of floods, volcanic eruptions, and other major natural disturbances over millions of years. The biological trajectories of Atlantic salmon and Pacific salmon, however, have been shaped by very different conditions of topography.
Yet the Atlantic and Pacific salmon share the same fates. Of the tens of millions of Atlantic salmon returning yearly to pre-settled New England, only 1,000 wild Atlantic salmon return to this region’s rivers and streams.
Today, 90 percent of wild Pacific salmon fish runs are gone:
Main Pacific NW Salmon Region Current % of Wild Fish in Runs Compared to 1820
British Columbia less than 3%
Puget Sound 8%
Washington less than 2%
Columbia River less than 2%
I keep forgetting that the Seattle I know is brand-new, a recent addition to the landscape. Though the transformation from impenetrable forest to modern city happened in a geological instant, the dramatic changes that accumulate from daily experiences seem imperceptibly slow by human standards,” Montgomery writes.
As the geologist, he seeks that long-view of the angle of repose, searching for timeline after timeline perspective for some sort of context to explain how salmon have become so imperiled.
Yet, the short view helps Montgomery appreciate human impact: “The primeval forest that blanketed Seattle for 98 percent of the last five thousand years disappeared in a little over a century.”
Early on Montgomery posits a question a reader might ask: A lot of books have been written about salmon. Why write another one?
The fate of salmon is closely tied to changes on the land. The fall of the Pacific salmon is the direct result of both over-fishing and other actions that subsequently reshaped the landscape. The story is not simple. But the basic connections are clear.
Throughout the book the reader explores with Montgomery the history of the “three full-scale” experiments on the salmon’s adaptability to this altered and obliterated landscape, the cause of which is human land use and unchecked development. “The strikingly similar history of salmon across these regions carries clear implications for modern salmon recovery efforts.”
Today, the blame game seems to be the biggest issue head-lined in the media concerning this story of the obscene decline of wild salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest: Some attribute the decline of salmon on Native American fishing. “The timber industry caused it,” yells the fisherman. The land developers blame the commercial fisherman. Salmon-eating sea lions and birds get scathed by some. “Everybody except dry-land farmers blames the dams.”
Without a doubt, after decades of research and field studies, and after thousands of papers and reports have been written, a general agreement within “scientific circles” makes it clear what the primary factors (those four H’s) are in the salmon’s decline.
[A]ctions to stem known causes remain either mired in institutional, corporate, and societal denial, dissipated by spin-doctoring, or thwarted by political agendas and bureaucratic inertia.
But it’s the history that truly makes Montgomery’s book compelling. The first H, harvest, was addressed in 1030 A.D., for example, when Scottish King Malcolm II closed the season for taking “old salmon” (spawners) at the mouth of any river on their way up to spawn.
Regarding habitat, Richard the Lion-hearted of England in the 12th century declared that rivers should be kept free of obstruction “so that a well-fed three-year-old pig could stand sideways in the stream without touching either side” (known as the King’s gap to allow adult salmon to reach spawning grounds).
Concerning hydropower, Robert the Bruce (1318) invoked a fine and sentence of forty days in prison for anyone setting up “fixtures that would prevent the progress of salmon up and down Scottish rivers.”
Montgomery isn’t writing this book to show a one-dimensional salmon advocacy or preach dam-breeching on the Columbia and Snake rivers. He sees salmon as a natural bank account, and an indicator of the entire human and natural systems’ conjoined health.
A sustainable management plan for salmon recovery means restoring habitats, writing off other habitats that are too heavily populated and developed, rehabilitating the wild salmon populations by stopping fishing for a while, restoring floodplains, and hiring and empowering riverkeepers, he professes.
“We have to plan for a hundred years, adapt how we live on and across the land to better conform to how the landscape works, and then enforce the plan and learn from history,” he told the audience.
At the close of his book, Montgomery asks whether the salmon story will end with the right Sixth H: “Will it be hubris or humility?”
My Interview of David James Duncan — Inlander.