MATTOLE VALLEY, CALIF. — Salmon poached, salmon grilled, salmon mousse — however you like it, nowadays it is abundant the year around at moderate prices, thanks to fish farming. Great quantities of the tasty fish are raised for market in hatcheries, thus ending our dependence upon the natural vagaries of harvests from the ocean.
Not everyone in the Pacific Northwest is happy about this. An indeterminate number of people are dedicated to the proposition that there were once huge quantities of salmon spawning in coastal rivers and streams, but their numbers have been decimated by logging. Often this dedication is acted out in efforts to thwart logging — still important to the economy of the region. Some concentrate on “restoring” watersheds in the belief that logging and ranch roads cause a great deal of silt to run into the region’s rivers, making them shallower and warmer. They claim the warm water, in turn, kills off countless young salmon smolts.
So dedicated are some of the Salmon People that in Oregon they have been clamoring to demolish several dams because, they contend, the salmon cannot get up the fish ladders made for them, thus preventing them from spawning upstream. Some object to federal and state fish-counting officials including in their tallies of salmon those fish released from hatcheries.
The goal of the SPs seems to be to create conditions in which wild salmon populations can steadily increase, just as human populations do. The goal rests on the mystical belief that had it not been for logging and ranching in these parts, the salmon population would be soaring.
Alas for the salmon, they cannot mirror human population trends. Humans adapt to virtually any kind of environment and temperature. Humans engage in a great range of activities. Salmon have no such variety. They are born, swim downstream, go to sea for approximately three years, swim back upstream to their birthplace, spawn and die. No matter what we do for them, neither we nor the salmon can control nature. Thus, their population goes up and down as a result of changes in the carrying capacity of their complex environment, both streams and the ocean.
Before humans entered the salmon’s environment there were floods, droughts, landslides, hot temperatures and predators. There still are. Contrary to pictures of “ideal” salmon streams conjured by the Salmon People — shaded, tranquil, cool — research shows that salmon-spawning streams subjected to sunlight and disruption produce more fish than do streams “managed” by humans into a steady, unchanging condition.
Rainfall has a good deal to do with successful reproduction by salmon. For example, in the early Eighties, on a tributary of the Eel River, two families were logging a tract of Douglas fir they owned. Keep in mind that fish-and-game officials count carcasses of recently-spawning salmon as a way to estimate population. On this creek in 1980 they counted 250 salmon carcasses. By 1984, the count was down to 87. Neighbors sued the owners, arguing that their logging was causing the decline. In 1987, however (three years after the tiny 1984 crop was born and thus the time for them to come back to spawn), the carcass count was 2,187. That same year, the largest commercial harvest of salmon in the 20th Century was recorded. Unlike the early Eighties, 1987 was a wet year. In Garberville, California, the town nearest the creek in question, one foot of rain was recorded between November 15 and December 15. Since the salmon spawn in the fall, when the rains come, it is these early rains that are critical to their success.
As for “cleaning up” watersheds, removal of man-made trash — old autos, farm implements, plastic — is desirable both aesthetically and to make sure poisons don’t leach into the streams. Any benefits from preventing sediment caused by soil run-off, however, are uncertain. There have been no studies made in the wild on the effects of sediment on fish health or survival. All studies have been made in laboratories under controlled conditions.
Most people cannot tell the difference in flavor between farm-raised salmon and wild salmon. Like the tree worshipers who try to stop all timber harvesting, the Salmon People see in their minds’ eyes a utopia that never was: fish reproducing happily and in huge numbers, unbothered by untidy human activity. For them, the first stop on the way to this utopia is to tell people they must not use their land except in strictly limited ways. And so the fight goes on.
Oh, waiter, I’d like the cold, poached salmon and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc.