PAT NEAL: The house of the salmon

FOR SOME, THE new year begins in January. On our rivers, the new year begins with the first sighting of baby salmon emerging from the gravel where they were tucked in by their parents last fall.

This week, we observed several of these newborn, inch-long fish scurrying about the edge of the river in a miniature school that gave us a cause for celebration.

After a century of overfishing, pollution, environmental destruction and government policies that doom them to extinction, it’s not a question of what happened to the salmon, but why is there one left?

The fact that the salmon have survived volcanoes, ice ages and the invention of nylon testifies to just how hard it’s been to eliminate this most important element in our ecosystem.

Most everyone is familiar with the water cycle.

Water evaporates from our ocean, forming clouds that travel inland to drop water, forming rivers that flow back into the ocean.

The salmon cycle operates 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 salmon’s nutrient-rich bodies.

That cycle is beginning now. Little schools of tiny fish are wiggling out of the rocks to swim through the shallows on their yearslong journey to the ocean and back, where everything wants to eat them.

It’s the story of the salmon that has been told since the ice age, when salmon first colonized our rivers.

It was believed that the salmon came from a big house at the bottom of the ocean where they lived in human form. When it was time for them to run upriver, they put on salmon robes. The salmon runs were a voluntary sacrifice for mankind, the animals, insects, birds, the forest and their progeny.

This is the reason for the oldest community celebration in the Pacific Northwest, the First Salmon Ceremony, practiced in one form or another by people who lived in the range of the salmon.

The First Salmon Ceremony is one of the oldest expressions of human faith, where the salmon are thanked for returning to the river. The first salmon caught in the river each year was treated as a special guest. The meat was shared. It was believed that as long as the salmon were treated with respect, the fish would run forever.

All of which goes a long way to explain the current state of our Pacific Northwest fisheries, where salmon have gone extinct in 40 percent of their historical range and 19 populations of salmon and steelhead are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

That number is likely to go up now that the Olympic Peninsula steelhead and the Olympic Peninsula and Chehalis River spring chinook are being considered for the Endangered Species list. The listing would include the Chehalis, Quinault, Queets, Hoh and Quileute river systems, and include all summer and fall Chinook in this vast area as endangered species.

Listing all our Chinook as threatened may not make sense, but it will make money by opening up the federal funding of the Endangered Species Act — granting millions of dollars to the grant-sucking bureaucracies and “non-profits” that have managed our fish into endangered status in the first place with their gratuitous studies, make-work projects and land-grab schemes that pretend to restore habitat with no corresponding increase in salmon, despite the billion dollars spent in the last 20 years of salmon restoration.

It’s all part of a monetized extinction designed to destroy the house of the salmon.


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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