As I look out across the wide landscape of fisheries, I am blown away by what seems to be our consistent desire to destroy the fish that we love most: Salmon. This is very much on my mind as I head to Washington, D.C., for a series of events planned by Trout Unlimited to raise awareness of the need to save Bristol Bay, the largest sockeye salmon spawning grounds on earth.
An excellent introduction to the phenomenon of salmon eradication is David R. Montgomery's fine book The King of Fish. In the book Montgomery lays out a pattern of humans finding a salmon resource (a.k.a., a river), fishing it hard and ultimately, through pollution and hydropower development, destroying the very river where salmon must return in order to spawn.
Like a wave circling the globe, salmon eradication began hundreds of years ago in the Old World -- the Thames and the Rhine were both salmon rivers. It spread to the east coast of North America, where the Connecticut River and the Penobscot River both had abundant salmon long ago. Finally, the eradication headed west to the different species of Pacific salmon in California, Oregon and Washington State.
In each of these waves of salmon destruction, industrial needs were always placed above the need to maintain a bountiful and healthy local food source. Perhaps the most chilling evidence of this heartless approach is a statement by Julius Krug, a US secretary of the Interior who presided over of the near obliteration of the Columbia River salmon. After weighing the importance of developing hydro power and salmon, Krug brazenly wrote: "The overall benefits to the Pacific Northwest from a thoroughgoing development of the Snake and Columbia Rivers... are such that the present salmon runs must be sacrificed."
For the last few decades, Alaska has been the shining exception to the rule of salmon obliteration. Through careful management and generally pretty good stewardship of its rivers, salmon continue to thrive in the state, even with salmon harvests that provide the US economy with hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
But, of course, we are knocking once again on the door of salmon destruction. The US government is seriously considering allowing the construction of Pebble Mine near Bristol Bay, Alaska. It would be the continent's largest copper and gold mine, right in the heartland of the largest sockeye salmon run on earth.
At what point will humans finally do the math and come to realize that "the overall benefits" of a region INCLUDE salmon? Bristol Bay's salmon are worth more than $200 million a year to our nation. This strikes me as a very significant "overall benefit" as we strive to finally overcome our tendency to destroy the fish we love most.