ONE usually associates salmon with the Pacific Northwest, where the mighty migrating fish define the region, muscling their way thousands of miles up through the Columbia River basin.
But salmon have historically traveled up and down the rivers of New England as well. Today, like the salmon of the Northwest, Atlantic species have dropped in numbers to near-extinction. Whereas some half-million salmon moved up New England rivers two centuries ago, fewer than 3,000 do so today.
East Coast or West, the story of decline is the same: toxic pollution, water diversion for agriculture and other purposes, siltation from logging and farming, and mostly dams - upwards of 1,000 on New England rivers blocking salmon migration, many dams no longer having any useful economic purpose since the mills they served have shut down.
Last week, environmental groups petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Atlantic salmon under the Endangered Species Act. The agency has 90 days to respond, and if it agrees that listing is justified it then will design a recovery plan for the fish. Would the salmon then make a comeback?
Based on the record of other endangered species, prospects are not good.
The story of the Atlantic salmon and efforts by RESTORE: The North Woods, the Concord, Mass.-based organization working on its behalf, is just one part of a very troubling trend in fisheries around the world.
Meeting in Portland, Ore., last month, the American Fisheries Society (an organization of scientists) declared that 90 percent of commercially harvested fish in the United States are overexploited.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has determined that ``virtually every commercial species of fish has been depleted, fully exploited, or overexploited, while the size of the world's fishing fleets, often heavily subsidized by governments, has increased at twice the rate of the size of the total catch,'' according to a UN statement.
Satya Nandan of Fiji, chairman of a UN conference on high-seas fishing held in July, says the problem is simply one of ``too many vessels catching fewer and fewer fish.'' The conference concluded without much resolution of the problem, which features fundamental conflict between coastal countries and a half dozen states with large fleets able to catch masses of fish outside 200-mile territorial limits where there are no international regulations.
The result of overfishing is seen most obviously in eastern Canada, where federal fisheries minister Ross Reid recently closed several key fisheries until next year. ``Atlantic Canada's biggest resource is nearly depleted and the industry it supports is in ruins,'' read a headline in The Ottawa Citizen.
A big part of the problem centers on recent advances in fishing equipment. Interviewed on National Public Radio, J. Fred Morley of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council in Halifax, Nova Scotia, said: ``The technology of fishing has improved so dramatically in the last number of years that if the fish can swim out there and they swim in schools, fishermen can find them and they can catch almost the last fish that's there.''
Not only are the fish declining, but predators that rely on them as well. Along with the drop in Alaskan pollock, for example, has been a decline in Steller sea lions, harbor seals, and some shore birds.
UN countries last year agreed to a moratorium on the use of drift nets - the so-called ``walls of death'' stretching 30 miles and more and killing thousands of animals that have no commercial value. But as the recent shutdown of cod and haddock fisheries to commercial fishing along the East Coast has shown, it will take more than that to reverse the global decline.
Other human activities will have to adjust as well. ``Man's fingerprint is found everywhere in the oceans,'' stated a 1990 study on marine pollution sponsored by the UN and other international groups. ``Habitats are being lost irretrievably to the construction of harbors and industrial installations, to the development of tourist facilities and mariculture, to the growth of settlements and cities.''
Very few fish achieve the popularity of such endangered ``charismatic megafauna'' as eagles, wolves, and grizzlies. Perhaps the listing of Atlantic salmon will spotlight threatened species at sea.