Scientist sounds alarms about salmon's future

Posted: Thursday, February 05, 2004

Imagine Alaska without salmon. Not a pleasant thought, is it? Yet other parts of the world where teeming runs of salmon once filled rivers have lost these valued and common fish.

David R. Montgomery, a scientist from Seattle, explains how and why in "King of Fish: The Thousand-Year Run of Salmon." To anyone who has ever savored a fresh-cooked salmon filet, it is a scary and riveting tale.

Montgomery outlines the history of salmon management. On the whole, he sees it as a deplorable case of resource mismanagement.

A geologist who specializes in the shaping of streams and rivers, he became involved in salmon issues and served on Washington's Independent Science Panel reviewing salmon recovery efforts.

"Digging into the history of Atlantic and Pacific salmon fisheries, I found a fascinating story of how valuable public resources can gradually decline despite high-profile concerns over conservation," he writes.

" Salmon are trapped between human population growth, economic development, degradation of environmental quality and the politics of public policy. The King of Fish, whose slippery hordes once filled rivers across Europe and North America, is becoming rare, either vanished or disappearing across much of its ancestral range."

Montgomery distills salmon survival threats down to what he calls the four H's: harvest, hydropower (dams), habitat degradation and hatcheries.

He delves into history back to medieval Europe and Pre-Columbian America, and takes readers from the private estates of the Scottish Highlands to 19th-century Native fisheries on the Columbia River and to the contemporary Tokyo fish market. He discusses factors acting upon salmon populations from volcanic eruptions to irrigation ditches to high-seas intercepts.

He describes how salmon played a large role in northwestern Europe. Even the Magna Carta of 1215 had a clause demanding removal of weirs that blocked salmon in English streams. Yet overfishing and industrialization, with its proliferation of mill dams and pollution, left only remnant populations of salmon in Scotland and Scandinavia.

By the time European settlers came to America, they knew the basics of salmon biology and conservation needs. They found waterways from Long Island Sound to northern Labrador full of large salmon runs, with fish up to six feet long and so plentiful they used them to fertilize fields and feed animals. Yet by 2000, remnant populations in Maine were listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Montgomery focuses on the Pacific Northwest, close to his Puget Sound home. Although informed people knew how to maintain salmon and made prescient pleas for stock preservation, the Northwestern states sold out their salmon for logging, irrigation and hydropower. The choice to sacrifice the salmon was never explicit, he stresses, but was the implicit policy resulting from dithering, wishful thinking, short-sightedness, lax enforcement, economic pressure and lack of leadership.

He reserves special criticism for hatcheries, which he calls "fish factories." In his view, politicians liked building hatcheries to avoid tackling more controversial and substantive causes for fish declines, and the facilities provided jobs for fishery managers. Yet hatcheries have done little to rebuild faltering runs, often flooding spawning streams with weaker stocks at great expense.

"Hatchery fish are neither an ecological nor an economic bargain," he concludes.

The author also critiques the fishing industry for unsustainable take and land-based developers for stripping and channeling waterways. Over the decades, small changes add up incrementally to fatal changes to the salmon's world, he warns.

This is an alarming book, but Montgomery leaves room for hope.

He makes specific recommendations urging policies based on science, realism and long-term sustainability.

Although he does not focus on Alaska, he mentions it several times as the last area of reasonable quotas, healthy runs and pristine watersheds.

More information about Alaska and the Russian Far East would have rounded out the book. Another area begging for more coverage is salmon farming, to which he allots a brief but hair-raising section.

But as it stands "King of Fish" is well-organized, well-researched and thorough. Some of Montgom-ery's opinions may raise hackles, but he makes a strong case that humanity needs to do a better job of stewardship if it wants to keep salmon on the menu.

This is an interesting and important book that anyone concerned with the future of the fishery should read carefully. It is a cautionary tale that Alaskans cannot afford to ignore.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Peninsula Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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