Big fish calls attention to salmon crisis
For the next two months, Bill Cassidy will be turning heads on the highways of America, as he and two other activists from the Seattle-based group Save Our Wild Salmon pull a two-ton, 25-foot fiberglass salmon all the way to Washington, D.C.
The fish is their humorous prop in a highly serious effort—traveling the country to call attention to the cascading series of threats to Pacific Coast wild salmon and what they say is a failure of federal agencies to manage our natural resources properly.
Their particular focus is the Columbia/Snake River fishery, once the largest in North America, but they also want to call attention to the collapse of Sacramento River salmon runs, as well as the diminishing Klamath River runs. Historically, these three rivers had the largest salmon runs on the Pacific Coast.
Cassidy is from Minneapolis, but his passion for wild salmon developed when he worked in Alaska as a fishing guide. “I’ve seen first-hand what wild salmon runs mean to people and the rest of nature,” he said, while standing behind an information table at last week’s Thursday Night Market in downtown Chico.
Behind him, the big fish drew the attention of passersby along Fourth Street. Adults stopped to ask about it and read handouts, while their children clambered up a set of stairs and crawled into its mouth. Inside they found colorful murals of a forest and a salmon spawning stream.
The timing of the tour is appropriate. In the wake of the collapse of the Sacramento River fishery, federal officials recently announced a complete seasonal ban on fishing for chinook, or king salmon, off the coast of California for the first time since fishing began there more than 150 years ago. The action could be the death blow for the state’s salmon fishing industry, which has declined by 90 percent in the past 15 years and now numbers only 400 boats.
There are many reasons given for the Sacramento fishery’s decline. Scientists blame the collapse on global warming that in 2005 forestalled the ocean “upswelling” that provides food for young salmon. Some people blame overfishing, while others say water diversions—to irrigate farms and water lawns—have turned the Delta and San Francisco Bay into toxic soups.
Then there are the thousands of dams, up and down the coast, that block the fish from returning to their ancestral spawning grounds.
Reversing the decline will take a multifaceted approach, but SOWS’s focus is on dam removal, particularly the removal of four of eight small dams on the Lower Snake River in eastern Washington.
The dams are part of the vast power system along the Columbia and Snake rivers operated by the Bonneville Power Co. For more than two decades, scientists and environmental groups have argued that breaching these four dams would bring back the Snake River salmon to productive, if not historic, levels. Bonneville Power, which provides electricity to much of the Northwest, has argued that, without them, lights would start going out.
The Snake is one of the largest river systems in America. It stretches from Wyoming in the east and Montana in the north to northern Nevada, and includes virtually all of Idaho. Historically between 10 million and 16 million salmon spawned in the system each year. Today less than 10 percent of the fishery remains.
The decline is seen most vividly, perhaps, at beautiful Redfish Lake, which is nestled at 6,500 feet below the Sawtooth Mountains in central Idaho. Named after the prized sockeye salmon, which has a bright orange-red color, it once was the spawning ground of thousands of fish each year. Last year just four sockeye returned to Redfish Lake.
Federal agencies and biologists have been trying for years to bolster Snake salmon runs without tearing out the dams, but they have declined nonetheless. The collapse of the Sacramento run, however, and other threats from global warming have increased the pressure to save the Snake runs.
That’s because most of the Snake is at a higher elevation than the Sacramento and the Klamath rivers, which means that its water stays cooler, which is good for the fish. The Snake is also largely a rural river, so its waters are relatively pristine.
As Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, noted in a March 21 Los Angeles Times op-ed piece, “The biggest, wildest, highest, coldest, healthiest and best-protected salmon habitat left south of Canada spans millions of acres and thousands of stream miles in … the headwaters of the Snake River. It is Noah’s Ark for salmon—the haven they need to reach to survive and carry on.”
In 2004, the Bush administration presented an incremental plan—"small tweaks to the system,” as one environmentalist described it—for making the Columbia Basin dams safe for salmon. But, on April 10, 2007, a federal appeals court rejected it, saying it used “sleight of hand” and violated the Endangered Species Act.
A new version of the plan is due out in May. In February, a group of nearly 100 members of Congress urged the feds to develop a plan that examines “all scientifically credible and economically viable alternatives” for salmon recovery in the Columbia Basin, including breaching the four dams.
That’s why Bill Cassidy and his traveling companions—Emily Nuchols, the communications director for SOWS, and Nate Grader, who comes from a family of fishing industry advocates—are traveling the country with their big fish. Everywhere they stop, they are educating people about the crisis and collecting signatures on a petition to take to the U.S. Capitol and deliver to Congress.
Their goal is to ensure that the upcoming federal plan acknowledges what scientists have been saying for years: Only dam removal will stop the decline and provide a significant response to the challenge now presented by global warming.