In last week’s episode, we traced a cause for the degradation of our ecosystem to the elimination of spawning salmon from our creeks and rivers. Salmon are anadromous. They start their lives in freshwater then migrate to saltwater before returning to freshwater to spawn.
When they return to spawn, salmon convey nutrients up our rivers.
For example, an adult chum salmon returning to spawn contains an average of 130 grams of nitrogen, 20 grams of phosphorus and more than 20,000 kilojoules of energy in the form of protein and fat.
As the bodies of spawning salmon break down, nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients become available to streamside vegetation. One study concludes that trees on the banks of salmon-stocked streams grow three times faster than trees growing along a stream with no salmon.
Salmon feed the trees along with up to 137 species of microbes, stream invertebrates, mammals and birds. A salmon-spawning stream is like a free supermarket for creatures great and small. Native Americans called bears, “the mother of all creatures” since they caught more fish than they could eat, leaving the rest to nourish the ecosystem.
We have eliminated this cycle before we even began to understand it.
Today, it is believed the trees feed the fish. Entire forests are routinely logged to build log jams in rivers as an excuse for salmon restoration. As you read this, the logs from 30 acres of forest and thousands of tons of concrete are being sunk in the Hoh River.
Previously, they drove steel I-beams into the streams to make log jams until it was discovered the pile driving of the steel burst the air bladders of the fish, killing them.
So instead, we’ll crush the fish and their eggs with concrete. This is what the salmon restoration industry calls, “the best available science.”
Building log jams, spraying glyphosate along our streams, buying property from “willing sellers” and building multi-million-dollar bridges over seasonal streams that have no salmon has done nothing to restore salmon anywhere in Washington.
It has, however, made fortunes for the so-called salmon restoration industry, while our salmon circle the drain to extinction.
Last year, Gov. Jay Inslee’s Salmon Restoration Plan spent $187 million. This year, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell is offering another $255 million. The Coast Salmon Partnership is offering $4.974 million to one or more salmon restoration projects.
Lack of money is not a problem for the salmon restoration industry. A lack of positive results is.
Is there anything we can do to bring back the salmon? Yes.
The Treaty Tribes of Washington are enhancing salmon runs with fish hatcheries using native brood stock. While various “nonprofit” environmental groups claim that 150 years of fish hatchery production has harmed the native fish, The Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences just published the results of a 27-year-long study that determined that fish hatcheries do not negatively affect salmonids. Pinniped predation does.
Fish hatcheries are not the only answer to salmon restoration. There is a simple solution to filling our creeks with spawning salmon. Native Americans, the Indigenous people of British Columbia and the pioneers of the Olympic Peninsula have a long history of putting fertilized salmon eggs in the gravel of streams that have no salmon.
Why can’t private citizen volunteers do this now? The answer could be that it is not expensive enough. It does not require heavy equipment contractors and consultants, so it will never work.
Perhaps our rivers are worth more dead than alive. Our fish are worth more as endangered species to government agencies than as the foundation of our ecosystem.
Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.
He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via firstname.lastname@example.org.