PAT NEAL: A short history of extinction

FOR SOME, THE new year begins in January. Out on our rivers, the new year begins now with the warming temperatures and the emergence of the baby salmon from the gravel, where they were buried by their parents last fall.

Most everyone is familiar with the water cycle — how water evaporates from the ocean, forming clouds that travel inland, dropping water and forming rivers that flow back into the ocean.

The salmon cycle operated in the same way, exchanging energy from the ocean to the mountains and back, sustaining all life along the river from the smallest bug to the largest tree with the spawned-out remains of their bodies.

The salmon also supported humans. On the Sella River in Spain, there is a 17,000-year-old cave painting of a salmon.

The first written reference to salmon came from the Roman invasion of England in 55 B.C. when Julius Caesar described the salmon fishermen’s boats, made of skins stretched over a wooden frame.

The Thames River was the salmon fishing capitol of the ancient world.

Shore nets filled with salmon until they burst. Shoals of juvenile salmon were used to feed hogs.

The Middle Ages saw the first fishing laws that made it illegal to feed the peasants salmon more than three times a week. The year 1030 saw the first closed season on a salmon river.

Richard the Lionheart made it illegal to block a salmon stream.

A description of fishing in 1590 gives a picture of a war on the fish with “fire, traps, weirs, handguns, cross bows, oils, pellets, poisons, powders and sundry nets,” being used.

This continued until the Industrial Revolution when pollution and over-harvesting eliminated most of the salmon in Europe. The Thames, a river the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser once called, “The silver-streaming Thames,” for its fat and noble salmon, was dead.

By then, Europeans were exploiting the New World.

The Norse saga of Eric the Red describes the great fishing at a Viking fishing camp in Newfoundland at around 995 A.D. The salmon were said to be larger than the ones found in Greenland.

Five hundred years after the Vikings disappeared, the Italians John and Sebastian Cabot described the rich fisheries of the eastern seaboard of North America.

Lake Ontario and its tributaries were once the salmon fishing capitol of the world. There were so many salmon they could be killed with canoe paddles. Farmers pitch-forked the salmon onto their fields for fertilizer.

By the 1890s, the salmon were endangered. By the 1930s, no one even remembered them.

By then, Washington state was the salmon fishing capitol of the world.

Salmon were caught with fish wheels, weirs and a flotilla of commercial fishing boats. Sport fishermen trolled spoons with hand lines out of row boats. Salmon was the poor man’s tuna fish.

With the post-World War II economic boom, both the salmon harvest and environmental degradation were affecting salmon populations.

In 1974, the Boldt Decision restored the Native Americans’ treaty rights to half the “harvestable” salmon. This set off a fish war where each side tried to catch the last one.

By the 1990s, many populations of salmon were declared endangered. In the new millennium, the government has spent billions trying to restore salmon.

Then, there is the human cost of the extinction of the salmon that has largely eliminated the culture of fishing among the people who depended on salmon for their food, livelihood and identity.

Next week, we’ll see how the best available science is profiting from the largest extinction since the slaughter of the bison of the Great Plains.


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

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