Herald-Leader Editor 1978-2010

(Now retired and living in Washington State)

When people think of the Pacific Northwest — at least back when clever ad men worked for railroads, not high tech companies — they thought of big timber and salmon. It seemed like there was an inexhaustible supply of both.

Turns out the two are inextricably linked in the transfer of nutrients in this complex ecosystem.

The rivers and streams here on the west side of the Cascades, like the Chehalis, Cowlitz and Toutle, a river that rises on Mount Rainier to the east of us here in Lewis County, were among the notable salmon spawning destinations in the Pacific Northwest.

There are historic images and records of these fisheries; the impression conveyed is one of ours for the taking with fleets and canneries up and down the Oregon and Washington coast.

Except for some smaller specialty processors and canners much of that industry is history here along the coast. Fresh, not canned, salmon is the focus so countries like China can compete off shore with factory boats that catch, process and package.

How does that impact you back in Iowa, literally in the middle of a sea of corn and soybeans? In some surprising ways.

Indians fished for salmon for thousands of years using materials at hand like bull kelp for tough line, split tree root for binding crabapple thorns to wooden hooks. They fished from cedar dugouts and made elaborate nets with skill that leaves you in awe of the precision.

Native fishermen were soon pushed aside by well-financed commercial exploitation of fisheries as unrestricted harvest commenced of salmon, halibut, cod and other premium species.

Now in the last two years conservation agency and university marine biologists are reporting alarming declines in king salmon fingerlings, the next generation, coming from the Columbia River.

It gets worse.

After these juveniles survive the journey out to sea they disappear and grow into magnificent fish. They are like the buffalo were to Indians and animals alike, a mobile food resource. Marine biologists believe as many as 135 different fish, animals and birds depend on salmon for their very survival. Orcas, also known as killer whales, are huge salmon fans, literally.

The almost mystical aspect of salmon’s impact on the environment is on the forest surrounding these salmon streams. It’s estimated as much as 30 percent of the nutrients trees take up in growth along salmon streams comes from dead salmon who come back up these inland waters to lay their eggs and then die.

Only a fraction of those eggs develop into fry that survive to return to the ocean where they wander.

If we were honest with ourselves we’d see humans as the most destructive invasive species on the planet. We have insatiable appetites for fresh vegetables, eggs, meat and milk, cotton clothing, and new homes and seafood. And out here west of the Cascades that appetite has devastated whole ecosystems where salmon once were the organizing principle for biological communities.

It is so drastic, this decline in returning salmon, that some scientists fear it is irreversible now. Formerly as many as 10 million to 16 million salmon entered the Columbia River to make the journey to spawning beds on tributary rivers and streams. Now the returns are perhaps five percent of the early counts. Chinook, or King salmon, are the jewels in the crown for sport fishing and the restaurant and fresh fish trade. They are what we think of when we envision salmon. Silvery, big fish, caught at their prime in the deep, cold waters of the Pacific. Their numbers are in decline.

The pressure on fish stocks off the coast of Washington and Oregon isn’t just on salmon. As a result you’re paying a lot more for fresh seafood in supermarkets back in eastern Iowa.

You’re eating less expensive but more abundant fish at fire station and Legion hall fish fries these days like pollock. When you do have salmon more and more frequently its farmed Atlantic salmon and they are hardly sustainable or ecologically neutral to the waters around the contaminate-tainted pens. Fishery groups and government agencies are hard at work trying to broaden the interest in lesser-utilized but abundant species.

Rockfish, albacore, lingcod, whiting, pollock and sablefish are among the potential next big thing. We import a lot of frozen and fresh fish from distant places like Chile, even Vietnam and China.

Who can remember eating real crab in salads? Now, thanks to pioneering work done at Oregon State University Seafood Lab at the Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station in Astoria, we think nothing of using a package of artificial crab meat or surimi.

All major fish stocks are under heavy pressure, everywhere, these days. Many species have the ability to bounce back from population declines but not collapses. Not every former salmon stream can, or should be, put back to its original state simply because it was once a spawning site. We do, however, need to understand our often lethal impact on the environment and not dismiss it as “fake news” and continue on with disastrous practices.

We are going through a sixth extinction right now that is sending everything from insect species to apex predators into oblivion. Remember, we never see our hand in events and thus the shock.