Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Cost of Our Appetites...

...for cheap power, timber, produce, development, and so on.

A story in today's Seattle Post-Intelligencer by enviro reporter Robert McClure raises the specter of $40 salmon this season. That's $40 per pound! Federal authorities will be meeting near Seattle this week to decide the fate of California and Oregon's chinook fisheries. As reported earlier, the California fishery is on the verge of total collapse, with returns at historical lows. We keep hearing noise about poor ocean conditions beyond our control, but really now: Could it just possibly be that agricultural diversions, subdivisions, dams, pollution, and a host of other man-made problems up and down the Golden State have finally taken their toll?

The modern history of salmon is a history of depletion and collapse wherever humans have settled and fished, with government failing the people at every step. The first to go were Atlantics in Western Europe, then Atlantics in the New World, now Pacific salmon on the West Coast. Is Alaska next? Fortunately the State of Alaska is taking steps to safeguard its prolific wild runs, such as a ban on farmed salmon. But timber, mining, and development continue to knock at the door.

Let's look at McClure's article a little more closely, because at least we have a reporter here who gets it.

* In the 8th graf he notes the rising price of chum salmon, the species of Pacific salmon at the very bottom of the commercial totem poll, the salmon also called "dog" because it's frequently used to feed sled-dog teams rather than people way up north. This is a scary thought.

* The next graf is telling, with a quote from a seafood marketer who refers to America as a "nation of salmon eaters." Good for us. Salmon are a superfood, loaded with Omega-3 fatty acids. When managed correctly, they provide a renewable cocktail of nutrition on a massive scale. We would be beyond stupid to let such a resource slip away.

* In the 11th graf McClure explains that the Alaska catch forecast for this year is down from last year by more than a third—but no biggie, because last year saw a peak catch. Salmon are cyclical. While their numbers go up and down, if managed correctly the down years can still be good years, with no reason to fear the future.

* Graf 15 presents the enviro view of California: the slide is due to "diversions of massive amounts of water to farms and cities from salmon streams in California's Central Valley."

* The next graf is the usual hemming and hawing from the feds: " unusual weather pattern that pummeled the marine food web, killing tens of thousands of seabirds and leaving the young salmon with little to eat." Maybe. But nature doesn't usually conspire to eliminate a species as resilient as the salmon.

* A little further down McClure introduces an interesting wrinkle: the fact that, despite the catastrophic chinook projections, the commercial whiting fleet is dumping overboard an estimated 6,000 dead salmon off the West Coast, salmon caught in their nets known euphemistically as "bycatch." Hello? Can the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) please do something about this? And even if you're going to allow bycatch, can we please get those dead salmon back to shore so we can use them in the myriad in-river restoration projects going on that require salmon carcasses to replenish the nutrient load, projects such as this.

* Which leads us to graf 29 way down near the bottom of the article, the money graf in my opinion. In the larger picture this could be called a case of burying the lead, but give McClure credit—very few reporters ever get this far at all. In graf 29 McClure explains the nature of what is known in scientific circles as shifting baseline syndrome as it applies to Pacific salmon, and I'll quote the graf in its entirety: "Overall, salmon runs have been pummeled in Washington and Oregon, compared with historic levels. For example, while scientists estimate that perhaps 5 million to 9 million chinook returned to the Columbia River each year in the late 1800s, the number returning there from 1979 to 2006 averaged just 135,000."

There it is folks! Your greatest chinook salmon factory on the planet, the Columbia River system, has gone from producing an average of 5 to 9 million chinook annually to 135,000. California's great chinook nursery, the Sacramento watershed, is in similar straits. Blame this sudden 100-year plummet on poor ocean survival? I think not.

So when—if—you pay $40 for two serving sizes of salmon at the fish market, ask yourself just what the cost really is.

(top image Adam Holloway)

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