Despite our famed intelligence and the advances we have made in our short history as a species, we are painfully slow at learning lessons.
Wide-eyed school children learn of our ignorance in the early 19th century when European Americans first set foot in the vast bounty of the Pacific Northwest and saw an infinite wealth of resources – lumber, fur, minerals and, of course, the legendary salmon.
They learn that what seemed infinite in the scope of limited understanding of ecology that those first white settlers possessed was, indeed, delicately finite.
Where 100 years ago tens of millions of salmon would begin their annual migration from the ocean up the Columbia River basin to the exact stream bed where their parents gave up their lives so that the defining event for life in the Pacific Northwest could continue as it had for millennia, less than 8 percent attempt the journey now.
Clear cutting of forests, degradation of habitats, severe overfishing and the construction of 400 dams have almost erased one of life’s most magical events from the Earth. Almost.
When innovations in canning allowed the fishing industry to sell salmon all over the world, salmon catches skyrocketed, and it wasn’t long before stocks started dwindling all up the Columbia.
Soon, rather than actually impose quotas on fishermen, the government developed an ingenious scheme – mass produced salmon that would be grown in hatcheries and released back into the Columbia.
But there’s a problem. After many decades of taking wild salmon from the river, gutting them and pouring their eggs into plastic baggies, growing them in concrete tanks and then releasing them back into the river, fewer than 1 percent of the 100 million salmon fry the hatcheries release are returning from the ocean every year.
These hatchery fish face a myriad of challenges on their way to join their brethren who circle the nutrient-rich waters of the northern Pacific Ocean for up to seven years before being called back to spawn and complete their live cycle.
Among the many issues hatchery-raised fish start life with, dams slow the movement of water in the river, forcing fish to expend energy on their way out to sea, as well as forcing the fish coming in from the ocean to stop, making them easier targets for native predators, like birds and what has long been used as the scapegoat for disappearing salmon, sea lions.
About 20 dead sea lions, most with gunshot wounds, have been found around the mouth of the Columbia River in just the last two months. California sea lions are federally protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but the killings are being blamed on fishermen frustrated that they can’t have all of the disappearing salmon.
A report by the National Marine Fisheries Service concluded that in the spring of 2011, sea lions ate just 1 percent of the salmon. But that same group has also authorized the killing of up to 30 sea lions that eat too many salmon at the base of the Bonneville Dam.
With authorities jumping on the hysteria bandwagon, it’s no wonder fishermen are following suit and taking aim at these animals who for hundreds of thousands of years have depended on the fish for survival. These animals need the fish to live. Humans have many other options.
Humans, who by overfishing, cutting down forests and building dams, have almost destroyed one of the great natural wonders of life on Earth, spend about a billion dollars a year on various aspects of Columbia River salmon recovery.
And all our efforts have left us with a dwindling salmon population devoid of the diversity millions of years of evolution equipped them with.
I doubt those frustrated fishermen are making a billion dollars off the endangered salmon they are harvesting. Rather than spending money on killing sea lions, why don’t we use those funds to train salmon fishermen in a new trade? They are a dying breed, literally. The fish are almost gone. We use billions of our taxes to keep these guys in the business of exacerbating the problem of our dying oceans. And even then they are murdering federally protected animals who actually have more of a right to eat the fish than we do.
It boggles the mind. All this money, energy, time and failed biology wasted so that these people can continue to take more than their share and blame every other living creature other than themselves for their failing way of life.
Humans have long blamed predators for an upset in ecosystems that causes us some kind of inconvenience, when we have been the culprit all along. Don’t we realize that things were just fine before we came along? And doesn’t it follow that if we took ourselves out of the equation things would heal themselves?
There are proposals to take down four outdated dams along the Snake River, a tributary of the Columbia River. This would open 5,500 miles of salmon highway to the fish, as well as breathe life back into the forests that once thrived off the nutrients the salmon delivered.
Perhaps we should take this leap and just sit back and enjoy the show. We can put the fishermen to work collecting data to support the theory that nature knows what’s up.
Note: Much of the background for this article was taken from PBS documentary Salmon: Running the Gauntlet. I highly recommend taking the time to enjoy this amazing film. Watch the documentary, Salmon: Running the Gauntlet in its entirety.
Banner photo by Linda Tanner