Saving the Pacific Salmon

Salmon are one of the most important fish species in the world, and in the Pacific Northwest the fish are a way of life for many species of plants and animals, including humans. The major problem that humans are facing is that the population of wild salmon is dangerously low as compared to historic numbers due to over-fishing and human degradation (including dams, chemical pollution and land use impacts. ). Pacific Salmon are now extinct in forty percent of the rivers they once thrived in (Four Fish).

Zoologist George Suckley stated in 1854, that the Pacific coast salmon were “one of the striking wonders of the region… these fish…. astonish by number, and confuse with variety. ”(In a Sea of Trouble) and that “The quantities for salmon which frequent these waters is beyond calculation, and seems to be so great as to challenge human ingenuity to effect it in any way. ” (In a Sea of Trouble). In order to get a better grasp on the problems humans are causing we need to first understand the salmon’s life cycle. In the Pacific Northwest there are five different species of salmon: Chinook, Pink, Dog, Coho, and Silver.

All of which are anadromous basically meaning that they live in both fresh and salt water. These fish start life hatching many miles upstream on the gravel beds in rivers on the pacific coasts of North America, and Asia, were they grow into smolts as they are carried downstream to the sea. Once at sea the salmon spend one to seven years maturing. Then for reasons unknown to scientists, a homing impulse triggers them to make an astonishing journey back to the very river or tributary they were hatched in (Salmon). At least that is how it is supposed to work.

When Lewis and Clark made their famous expedition nearly two centuries ago they marveled at the “great quants. of Salmon” they had seen in the Columbia River in Washington State, which in 1860 produced sixteen million salmon annually. Today the figure has dropped to less than one million respectively (Where the Salmon Rule). In 1990 not one sock-eye salmon out of a population of thousands made its way back to its spawning area in Redfish Lake, Idaho (In a Sea of Trouble). The brutal decline is emblematic of the problem.

Biologists Willa Nehlen, Jack Williams, and James Litchatowich reported that of the hundreds of distinct native populations that were once common to the Pacific Coast are disappearing. Of the original stocks 106 are extinct, 102 definitely face extinction, fifty-eight are at moderate risk, and fifty-four are a matter of concern. All in all the report said that 214 natural spawning routes are in very serious trouble (Fish-eries Mar. /April issue). What possibly could be the reason for the sharp decline of this life giving species of fish?

HUMANS. Let’s start with dams. The first half of the twentieth century, in order to harness the power of the rivers in the Pacific Northwest for producing electricity, and producing water for irrigation in the semi-arid valleys, countless dams were built. The engineers that built these structures had the salmon in mind during the design phase. They constructed fish ladders and artificial falls designed to allow the upstream passage for the salmon past all the concrete now blocking the rivers vital to the species.

On the Columbia River alone eight major dams were built, while a spattering of additional smaller dams were plugging up the tributaries. There was something that the engineers did not account for and that is for each existing dam five to fourteen percent of adult salmon moving upstream cannot find the fish ladders, or if they do end up getting lost in the vast reservoirs created between dams. And worse yet the engineers designed the ladders and artificial falls for fish moving upstream, not the smolts making their way downstream to the Pacific Ocean.

It is estimated that we lose ninety percent of the smolts that count on the flow of the river to carry them to the Ocean. Instead the juvenile fish get caught and mutilated in the screens or die due to predation in the reservoirs (Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife). Another huge problem to the choked rivers is land degradation. Every year the U. S. Forest Service sanctions timber and grazing practices on the national forest lands in the regions that are ecologically prudent to native salmon populations. The clear cutting, roadways, and destruction harm the salmon that make it through the dams indefinitely.

Salmon need cool clean water to survive the journey to their spawning grounds, and the logging industry cuts all the trees down, which in turn lets more radiation from the sun hit the water and heat it up. The trees being cut down speeds up the erosion of the soil, which pours into the streams making them very dirty which suffocates the eggs and alevins. Road and rail construction causes land-slides that block rivers (The Plundered Seas). A study conducted by the Forest Service looked at several hundreds of miles of streams in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho counting cool clean pools that are critical to wild salmon.

They found that fifty to seventy-five percent of the pools were gone in the most heavily logged areas. Those areas that were spared still remained stable or even gained pools over the last fifty years. One of if not the largest problem is that of overfishing. Humans with their large boats and drift nets sometimes spanning thirty miles in length, gill nets and fish wheels can catch salmon by the millions. Alaska alone harvests 200 million fish annually to keep up with the demand.

The United States, which is limited by strict total allowable catch quotas (TAC’S) that monitor and limit the overall weight of fish which fishermen may land, based on advice by scientists, and is enforced by the U. S. Fish and game Service. Although sometimes the TAC is wrong, and the U. S. takes to many fish we are not the main problem here. It is the other countries that illegally set their nets in our waters to poach salmon by the millions. Specifically the Taiwanese fishing fleets whose thousands of miles of netting plucked at least by estimate of the NMFS eight million illegal salmon last year (NMFS).

Also the NMFS estimates that at least twenty million West Coast salmon are caught illegally every year. As it stands now according to 1996 study Factors Contributing to the Decline of Chinook Salmon estimates that in recent years harvest impacts on Puget Sound Chinook salmon stocks have been quite high on average sixty-eight to eighty-three percent of the wild stock has been taken by fishing. And that is a problem when you consider the other factors that man has created that impede or harm native stocks. Pollution from pulp mills, industry and agriculture has also had a devastating effect salmon.

Aluminum pollution has had a particularly horrible effect on the gills of the salmon. The aluminum mutates the thin mucous membrane from which the fish takes its oxygen and keeping out potentially damaging microbes into a crusty damaged organ that inhibits the fish’s ability to transition from fresh to salt water (Nature’s Crusaders). Also it has been found that mixtures of organophosphate and carbamate pesticides that are commonly detected in freshwater streams and reservoirs that support endangered species of salmon.

What happens is the pesticides can inhibit the activity of acetyl cholinesterase which is a hormone secreted to aid in neural function (The Synergistic Toxicity of Pesticide Mixtures). Several of these chemicals when mixed together in relatively low doses have proven to be fatal for the salmon, whereas individually the chemicals in the same doses are non-lethal. In the late nineteenth century man noticed that there were less salmon in the waters of the Pacific Northwest and something had to be done to supplement the commercial fishermen’s catch.

Thus came the idea of hatcheries. Hatcheries work like this: Salmon that are returning to spawn in their home rivers are captured. These captured fish contain both males and females. The eggs are taken from the females, and the sperm is taken from the males and mixed together to form fertilized eggs. The eggs are then incubated, where the hatched fish are placed in holding tanks to grow and develop. When adequate growth is reached the fish are released into the river where they make their way to the ocean, mature and return back to the hatchery or spawning grounds.

This practice makes the survival rates increase because there are no predators in hatcheries and their environment stays constant plus food is abundant. So what is the problem with hatcheries you might ask? The answer is genetic diversity. The fish that come to the hatcheries (which are set up along rivers) get a lot of the same fish back every year. Currently, most of the fish in the hatcheries are fourth, fifth, and sixth generation stocks from the hatchery. These fish keep being bred with genetically similar fish, which weakens the population as a whole. On the Columbia River in 2006 8,157 oho salmon were caught for a study to determine how many were hatchery fish, and the results were shocking. Of those fish 6,234 were hatchery fish leaving only around 1900 as wild stock (The End of the Line). Without genetic diversity the salmons’ immune systems get weakened and they become more susceptible to diseases that normally wouldn’t affect them. Also a concern for hatcheries is that they grow larger than their wild counterparts and evidence suggests that the larger hatchery fish kill wild stock due to predation (Northwest fisheries Science Center).

Hatcheries are also known to have disease outbreaks that can be transmitted to wild stock. Now that I have shown that there is a problem let’s take a look at what lower numbers of salmon effect in their environment. When Salmon make their epic runs up the rivers of the Pacific Northwest not all survive. Bears numbering in the hundreds stand in the rivers plucking fish out of the water trying to put on pounds and pounds of fat to get them and their cubs through the long northern winters, and the salmon are the bears’ main source of calories (Planet Earth).

When the salmon runs are abundant the bears only eat the skin, brain, and eggs of the fish because they are the parts with the highest calorie content. So along the shores of the rivers lie thousands maybe even hundreds of thousands of carcasses that are free for the taking by wolves, coyotes, fox, raptors, insects and any other opportunistic animals. These remains are vital to the overall health of many different species of land animals, not to mention plants as well. Even after the animal kingdom has had their way with the carcasses there is still rotting flesh and bone that gets left behind.

A study of fifty different watersheds in the Great Bear Rainforest on British Columbia’s central coast says that the predation of salmon provides a “potent nutrient subsidy” that drives plant growth in the surrounding forest. Numbers nearing fifty percent of the salmon are getting carried to the forest, with the remaining fish that make it to the spawning grounds to reproduce and die ending up decomposing on the banks. The study observed everything from lichens to shrubs and found that nitrogen loving plants were thriving in these areas (The Vancouver Sun Mar. 25, 2011).

The areas that did not have the salmon were not as robust. When the salmon decompose carbon and nitrogen get released into the soil. That coupled with animal scat makes for very rich fertilizer making the forest grow thick and lush (Hanley and Schnell 1998). When dealing with an issue of this scope one must take into consideration the many obstacles that will present themselves, such as how to regulate the many countries that have access to the Pacific Ocean. How will funding be provided for the operation? How to peacefully find an alternative for those who depend on salmon for their family’s livelihood.

Continuing research for hatcheries and the money that will be needed and so on and so forth. My plan to preserve the pacific salmon is multi-tiered and complex, but if the people involved can be agreeable a sacred and valuable species can be saved. First the issue of regulating all the coastal countries for poachers must be addressed. I propose that these countries involved start a salmon fishing enforcement bureau that is a combined and comprehensive unit tasked to regulate, seek out, and enforce the laws and regulations with steep penalties decided by a committee comprised of representatives from each respective country.

Secondly I propose that all commercial fishing be halted until the populations of salmon can recover. Once recovered then commercial fishing can be continued at a reasonable rate as advised by the bureau’s biologists. Doing this would outrage the fishermen who depend on salmon for their income, but there is a solution to this as well. The misplaced fishermen will have the option to be trained free of cost, (made possible by government funding) and assigned jobs at salmon farms and hatcheries, also the processing plants that butcher and package the salmon.

While the fishing ban is in effect the nation will rely on fish farms to provide salmon for consumption by humans. Except those indigenous peoples (such as the Indian Tribes and Inuit) that will be given rights to a predetermined number of fish for their freezers to be consumed. To address the problem that the hatcheries and farms produce regarding disease and inbreeding the government will redirect money in the national budget to enlist the help of the foremost experts in the field to figure out ow to eliminate disease and genetically diversify the stocks coming from the farms and hatcheries. Next the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers will demolish dams at strategic locations to allow the salmon free passage up their streams and rivers. To supplement the cheap electricity that will be lost, wind and solar farms will be set up to get electric to customers that the dams supplied electric to. Also we will utilize available technology to modify the dams in a way that all migrating fish will know where to go, and receive safe passage through the structure.

Logging companies will be mandated to not build roads or clear cut trees any closer than 1 mile from a salmon spawning river or tributary unless it is deemed necessary by the U. S. Division of Parks and Recreation. Enlisting the help of the EPA would be a priority. The EPA could ban the use of certain pesticides that contain aluminum in their chemical makeup, and test farmers land to regulate and arrest (if necessary) those in violation. In closing I would like to state that the future of the Pacific salmon is clouded by all of the problems I listed in the above paragraphs.

And it was we who have created this problem, so it has to be we who fix it. Implementing the plan I have devised will be challenging, tough and expensive, but if the American people can be patient and understanding I know we can come together as a country and fix our mistake and save the salmon. We have to. Salmon are more than fish; they are one of the last great symbols of the west, and givers of life to so many people, plants, and animals. To lose them due to non-natural causes (like we did the bison) would be a travesty. The world would quite literally be a lot less beautiful without them, and I cannot imagine it. Can you?