Salmon have been the leading cultural icon in the Pacific Northwest since well before Meriwether Lewis and William Clark explored the territory 200 years ago. But now these oceangoing travelers are facing new challenges as steep as the Columbia River dams that precipitated their decline into near-extinction.
A recent series of legal actions and political decisions aimed at protecting fish would limit use of pesticides, curtail river dredging, reduce water available for irrigation, and change the operation of power-generating dams. All this adds up to the likelihood of economic conflict across a region the size of Western Europe.
Meanwhile, the National Academy of Sciences and another federally appointed panel of scientists have weighed in with controversial warnings. Federal judges have gotten into the act as well.
But wait. Why should one worry about any of this as long as man-made fish hatcheries can fill our backyard grills with succulent salmon by the millions?
It's not as simple as that, say experts, who liken hatcheries to zoos - hardly natural habitat. Wild salmon, they say, are smarter and heartier - better able to withstand the challenges of nature, including things no one has thought of yet. And they may well be an exceptional "keystone species" whose demise could adversely impact whole ecosystems.
It could be the most graphic illustration of the "law of unintended consequences" as the country tries to balance economic wants with environmental needs. And it's likely to mean that the $1 billion spent so far on salmon recovery may be only a down payment on one of the most expensive environmental efforts ever.
Salmon are anadromous fish, which means they are born in the gravel beds of cool streams, head downriver to the Pacific Ocean as juveniles, and return several years later to spawn (and expire) in the same place where they were born.
During the late 1800s, biologists estimate, annual salmon runs in the 250,000-square-mile Columbia Basin totaled some 16 million fish. Today, annual runs are down to about one-sixteenth that figure. Several salmon species have been federally listed as "threatened" or "endangered." Some runs have gone extinct.
"Columbia River salmon today are at a critical point," a National Academy of Sciences study warned last week.
The culprits are many: logging, mining, ranching, farming, and urban development - all of which can cause erosion and pollute the thousands of streams where salmon historically have reproduced. Rates of commercial fishing became unsustainable. And the dams that sprang up in the latter half of the 20th century - walls of concrete and massive turbines that are major sources of electrical power - changed water flows and access to historical habitat.
The problem is not new but the urgency is. At stake are not only salmon runs, but also important sectors of the regional economy tied to water diversions and river traffic, the fishing interests of native Americans (as confirmed in court rulings upholding treaties), and important sources of hydropower.
Federal and state agencies have worked to reduce habitat pollution and maintain water flows during crucial fish migration periods each year. But there are recurring conflicts among states, federal agencies, tribes, and economic interests. The Bonneville Power Administration, the federal power-marketing agency, must balance fish protection (letting water bypass the turbines at 31 dams) with its responsibility to generate revenue while providing electricity at reasonable rates - particularly in times of drought.
Another approach to preventing further salmon declines has been the breeding of hatchery fish, which are then released by the millions to head out to sea mimicking the natural cycle.
The National Marine Fisheries Service (the federal agency that oversees endangered marine species) has been counting hatchery and wild salmon together. If they're essentially the same, and the overall numbers are relatively robust because of this, then the agency may be forced to remove eight fish species from the endangered-species list, US District Judge Michael Hogan has ruled in a case involving coastal runs in Oregon.
Irrigators and developers are all in favor of this; environmentalists and many scientists are adamantly against it.
Six experts, appointed by the federal fisheries service, recently declared that counting hatchery fish with wild salmon "could have devastating consequences."
University of Washington marine ecologist Robert Paine, who headed this two-year study, says, "There's an overwhelming body of evidence that hatcheries in fact do more harm than good." Dr. Paine and his colleagues assert that after just a few generations, hatchery fish have undergone genetic and behavioral changes that make it difficult for them to survive in the wild.
In any case, says Paine, maintaining a rich gene pool of salmon is like having a diverse investment portfolio: It's a crucial hedge against the unknown. "There's no question that one can maintain salmon, if you will, in hatcheries," he says. "The problem with that is it will almost inexorably lead to the extinction of wild fish."
Environmentalists liken salmon to the proverbial canary in the coal mine.
"Because wild salmon are a keystone species, as well as a cultural icon for the region, protection and restoration of healthy, sustainable wild-salmon runs is about more than just keeping a fish from going extinct," says Rob Masonis, director of the Northwest office of the conservation group American Rivers. "It is about protecting and restoring river health in the rivers and streams of the Northwest."