IT was a good day for fish. Small fry in salmon hats and 6-foot adults in upscale suits strolled past racks of salmon roasting by a hardwood fire. Quilted salmon schooled on lines strung over pathways and the 25-foot fish didn't get away. Despite a chill wind and threatening skies, the first annual Salmon Festival, timed to celebrate the return of winter-run salmon to Chimacum Creek, went swimmingly.
The festival climaxed two years of work by Wild Olympic Salmon (WOS), an organization devoted to the preservation of wild salmon and their habitat on Washington's Olympic Peninsula.
``Wild salmon need a pristine environment to reproduce,'' says Mall Peek, a founder of WOS. ``So healthy fish imply a healthy watershed. We're dealing with very local values like clean water and sound forest practices. A big part of our focus has been on community involvement in habitat restoration and enhancement projects.''
That focus was evident at the festival. Between the stands hawking hot cider and smoked salmon were booths for groups like Adopt-A-Stream, the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority, and the County Conservation District. Videos documented the life cycle of wild salmon from their birth in fresh water, through their two- to six-year sea migration and finally their return home to spawn and die.
Fishing plays a sizable role in the local economy, so talk often turned to the management of the resource and questions about its overall health.
The answers depend a lot on whom you talk to. According to the Washington Department of Fisheries, the size of the catch has remained fairly stable over the past 50 years.
But to some, those figures don't tell the whole story. ``I think the public is being mislead,'' says Jeff Cederholm, a fisheries scientist for the Washington Department of Natural Resources. ``What they see are lots of salmon. But those fish are the result of a hatchery program that has degraded, homogenized, and replaced wild salmon runs. The long-term survival of the whole resource is being placed at risk.''
The decline of wild salmon runs underscores the work of groups like WOS and has become a hot topic among fishery managers and wildlife groups in the Pacific Northwest.
A hundred years ago, every major river in the region supported large runs of genetically diverse wild salmon. Since then overfishing and the loss of spawning habitat from dams, pollution, and agriculture have seen the loss of hundreds of wild runs.
As wild fish were lost, federal and state agencies replaced them with fish from hatcheries. Today, Washington has over 100 hatcheries, and on the Columbia River wild fish make up only 20 percent of the catch. The trend troubles Mr. Cederholm.
``The problem is that hatchery fish are different,'' he says. ``They're clones, selected for their ability to survive in the hatchery environment. They aren't a good substitute for wild runs because they lack the genetic diversity to survive in the wild.''
And when hatchery fish are used to supplement the catch on rivers that already have wild runs, the results can be disastrous.
``Hatcheries shelter the young fish against the laws of natural selection,'' Cederholm continues, ``so most survive in that environment. And virtually all can be harvested, since hatchery technology needs only a few returning adults to reproduce the run.
``But the wild fish can't withstand that level of fishing. Young wild salmon have to contend with all the dangers of the natural environment, so it takes more of them to keep the runs healthy. That means more adults have to survive the catch to spawn.''
When wild and hatchery fish are mixed, wild stocks are often overfished and eliminated. ``As more and more wild stocks are managed into extinction,'' Cederholm says, ``the gene pool gets smaller and the stage is set for wholesale destruction of the entire resource by the same diseases that have already devastated a number of hatchery runs.''
``It's not a pretty picture,'' agrees Tom Jay, cofounder of Wild Olympic Salmon. ``Our answer has been to build an awareness of the problems and to reclaim our own watersheds, bit by bit. Once you've worked to restore salmon habitat, it becomes sacred turf. It's an amazing transition, and I've seen it happen with loggers and farmers and fishermen.''
Besides education and enhancement, WOS uses art to celebrate the salmon, an idea with a long history.
For thousands of years, the native people of the Northwest Coast honored the salmon in legends, totems, and paintings. ``Since the coming of the white people,'' Mr. Peek says, ``the salmon has been in the hands of technocrats. We've tried to return its spirit to the artists.''
Around the festival, bright salmon banners snapped in the wind and salmon paintings by local schoolchildren decorated booths. You could buy watershed trading cards, depicting local plants and animals, or a raffle ticket for the ``Salmon Rain'' quilt.
And there was the 25-foot salmon. For the past year, the fiberglass fish has been Wild Olympic Salmon's flagship. ``It does get your attention,'' Mr. Jay notes. The fish ``migrates'' to area schools in conjunction with the organization's educational programs. Students crawl inside to find a painted vision of the ideal spawning habitat, complete with twinkling brook and tape-recorded forest sounds.
By late afternoon, most people have moved inside the big circus tent where storytellers, puppeteers, and Quileute tribal dancers repeated ancient tales of salmon lore and legend. In the darkness, with the smell of wood smoke in the air, you could close your eyes and feel the space transformed from canvas circle to cedar long house.
The evening program began with the presentation of a carved bowl to the Quileute tribe as a token of esteem to those who have loved and respected the Chimacum watershed for thousands of years.
Finally, it was time to enter ``The Riparian Zone.'' The one-act play described a sort of fishy twilight zone where a magic alder grove produced ``aldered'' states of consciousness, and the creatures of the watershed lived their lives in harmony with nature. But the peace of the stream was shattered by the arrival of ``Dark Wader,'' a six-legged monster that wreaked havoc on everything in his path. ``Worst of all,'' the narrator told the audience, ``he did all this after filing an environmental impact statement.''
In the end, Dark Wader was subdued by Sir Rodney the Riverknight, a victory for hard work and the right spirit. The crowd roared its approval and followed the cast outside to light the big bonfire.
A fine rain began falling as people drifted from the tent toward the 10-foot timbered pyre, topped with a painted wooden salmon.
As the fire caught and burned, more Indian tales were told; ancient legends about the salmon-people, who sacrificed themselves for the benefit of humankind and were honored in return with rituals and celebrations.
Around the blaze, the audience listened as traceries of sparks swirled and rose through the rain into the night sky. With campfire songs and later with an old-time square dance at the Grange hall, the people of the watershed welcomed the salmon home.