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Swimming Upstream to Save the Salmon

In the Pacific Northwest, salmon once was king. But as dams were built throughout the Columbia River Basin to power an economic boom, and as factories, farms, and mills filled the valleys, the salmon population plummeted. Now the question is whether it will survive at all. To revive the endangered species will require something of almost everyone.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 15, 1997


Long before pioneers set out along the Oregon Trail to populate the Pacific Northwest, before Meriwether Lewis and William Clark mapped the area nearly two centuries ago, native Americans called it Nch'i-wana - "Big River."

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Starting out in the Canadian Rockies of British Columbia, it gathered force and mass from thousands of other streams and rivers, thundering over boulders and widening out to flow unhindered through a magnificently beautiful gorge to the Pacific.

Along its 1,214-mile reach, draining more than a quarter-million square miles in seven states, it provided habitat for 10 million to 16 million salmon, whose annual cycle of birth, migration to sea, and return defined the region's natural calendar and sustained the native peoples.

All of that is true today for the Columbia River. All except the "flowing unhindered" - and the millions of salmon.

Though the river remains the region's environmental and economic lifeblood, it has been so changed that many salmon runs are approaching (some, in fact, have passed) the point of extinction. The total salmon population has been reduced to about 2 million, and some 80 percent of those are not wild, but hatchery-grown. Now it is apparent that introducing hatchery-grown fish may contribute further to the decline of wild fish.

Saving the salmon has obvious economic value - some 60,000 jobs are tied to commercial fishing, sport angling, and tourism. But beyond their dollar value, salmon are seen as a prime indicator of the ecological health of the region. They are part of a much bigger story of troubled fisheries around the world - 13 of 15 major fisheries are declining. And for many native Americans and other Northwesterners, salmon represent an enduring icon with deep emotional, cultural, and - for some - spiritual ties.

"It hits me very, very hard on a moral and religious level," says Reed Burkholder, a conservationist who grew up and still lives in Idaho. "They belong here. This is their natural habitat. They're part of God's creation, and we've about destroyed them."

More complicated than spotted owl

Solving the salmon situation could make that other Northwest species problem - the northern spotted owl - look like child's play.

Not only loggers, but farmers, ranchers, shippers, sport and commercial fishermen, factory workers, and those who rely on hydropower for their electricity (which includes just about every business and homeowner in the Pacific Northwest) will be affected. Groups representing these interests, state governments and federal agencies, conservationists and Indian tribes - all are involved in some way in regulatory and legislative efforts to halt the decline - and some are parties to lawsuits as well.

Still, the overall picture has not improved, and it seems likely that this year more salmon species will be officially listed as "endangered" or "threatened."

"Given the dwindling numbers, time is clearly running out," US district judge Malcolm Marsh warned last month, in a case that could determine the salmon's future. Critics of federal efforts to revive salmon runs have asked Judge Marsh to force agencies to take stronger measures.

In this case, the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) is in force. The controversial law requires federal agencies to design and implement "recovery plans" whenever a species is officially listed. Often, steps taken under the law impinge on property rights and restrict development, agriculture, and other activities.

To stave off further federal action, states in the region are now coming out with their own plans to rebuild salmon populations. On April 25, for example, the National Marine Fisheries Service held off listing the coho salmon in Oregon's coastal rivers only because state officials crafted a detailed and expensive plan to protect and restore fish habitat.

But conservation groups and other critics worry that the types of voluntary actions envisioned in state plans won't be sufficient to do the job - and then it will be too late.