f salmon are the king of fish, then today theirs seems largely a sad reign in exile. Most of us are familiar with the plight of wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest, but what may surprise is that this isn't the first time the same dismal formula of overfishing, dam building (which prevents fish from reaching their spawning grounds), and pollution have driven salmon to near-extinction. As David Montgomery's engaging new study points out, these same man-made afflictions once drove salmon from the rivers of England, Central Europe, and the Atlantic coast of North America. Three hundred years ago there were regular salmon runs on the Thames and the Rhine. Salmon in the northeastern United States were once so abundant that settlers used them as fertilizer. Now the question is, Will Alaska become the wild salmon's last remaining domain?
Montgomery is a professor of geology at the University of Washington, and it's fitting that the salmon's story be told from a geological perspective. Evolving 40 million years ago and enduring ice ages, earthquakes, and massive volcanic eruptions, Pacific salmon were shaped by -- and helped to shape -- their environment. "It's sobering to think that salmon could take the worst nature could throw at them for millions of years, but a little over a century of exposure to western civilization could drive them to the edge of extinction," Montgomery writes.
How that happened makes for a frustrating tale of lessons learned and promptly forgotten. Ever since King Malcolm II of Scotland issued an edict in 1030 forbidding salmon fishing between Assumption Day and Martinmas, officialdom has been enacting laws to protect salmon, only to abolish them after they were circumvented or simply ignored. With professorial zeal, Montgomery piles up historical citations to make the point that salmon management has long been an exercise in self-interest and finger-pointing, not sound science. In the United States, fishermen blamed declines on dams; dam owners blamed fishermen; and both groups blamed Native Americans -- ironic, because Indians managed their fisheries at self-sustaining levels for thousands of years. Forced to choose between fishermen, farmers, and power companies, politicians have consistently done what politicians do best: waffle. That has usually meant building hatcheries, which have produced hundreds of millions of juvenile salmon that typically fail to spawn. Recovery of salmon will not, as Montgomery says, come from "technological fixes and politically motivated half-measures," but rather environmentally sound fishing practices and strict regulations protecting their habitats.
Given Montgomery's love of detail, it's unfortunate that he all but ignores the issue of salmon farms -- environmental disaster zones that pollute the water and threaten wild stocks with disease, parasites, and competition from escaped farmed salmon.
Fundamentally, Montgomery says, today's declining salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest raise a broader question about the future of wildlife recovery efforts. "What does it say for the long-term prospects of endangered species around the world if one of the most prosperous regions of the richest country on Earth cannot accommodate its own icon species?"
-- Barry Estabrook