Lifeblood of Pacific Northwest imperiled | As I See It

Although state officials cite an uptick in ESA-listed salmon populations

By Steve Ulvi/Special to the Journal

Not long ago, silent clouds of salmon functioned like red blood cells cycling nutrients through the web of water that is the Pacific Northwest.

We did everything possible, out of colossal ignorance and arrogance, to marginalize them as a fungible resource. Replaceable. As a result, the most valued salmon of all, Chinook, are maybe 10 percent of their estimated historic numbers.

Now, at the eleventh hour, we scramble to save salmon stocks at great cost, spawning a mind-boggling array of organizations. Why do salmon anglers, orca lovers, “mossbacks” and conservationists—people who should know better—settle for living on with the ghosts of abundant salmon and imminent ecological collapse?

Conservationists living on the Salish Sea today must have a high tolerance for inertia, incongruity and political double-speak. Anglers live with one of the most complex fishery management schemes in the world, with resident blackmouth catches limited to a few thousand each winter. Meanwhile, all rockfish are closed and halibut severely limited.

Like a good news-bad news joke, our state has been rightly forced to increase estimates of monthly consumption of local fish of all kinds, by 30-fold, to better reflect reality. But water pollution continues at levels that are deemed to increase cancer risks for eating that much fish some 10-fold.

British Columbia has welcomed dozens of huge pens of Atlantic salmon, dodges chargesS. Ulvi of sickness and pollution, but is considering expansion in critical Fraser River wild salmon pathways. They should learn from the debacle of a storm release of hordes of miss-shaped, inedible, penned steelhead that now threaten wild salmon in Norway.

Pen-raised exotic salmon in salt water is one of the most cynical business ideas imaginable in our region.

Studies indicate that of the massive and costly spring releases of fingerling salmon of wild and hatchery stocks, 25 percent (as high as 80 percent of some steelhead stocks) do not survive passage through our troubled waters. A multi-pronged research effort, as to why, is under way.

A salmon derby here awards many thousands of dollars for hooking hundreds of resident blackmouth (releasing most) over a frenzied weekend, without a dime going to salmon restoration. And, an orca organization picks the low-hanging fruit of denying sport boats the summer use of restricted westside waters, instead of taking on dams and toxic pollutants that are actually killing orcas. Anglers are already an under-appreciated, but important, component of salmon recovery.

Local non-profits like Long Live The Kings are showing the way out, even though salmon never really spawned here. Its innovative effort is turning out some 550,000 young Chinook on Orcas Island, with a fall return of a thousand adults and increasing. They plan to increase numbers. The recent vocal coalition of orca and salmon supporters, originating here, is very promising.

Salmon recovery, even if only to 50 percent of historic levels for Chinook, should be the core regional socio-environmental objective upon which all else pivots. Systemic increases in salmon, especially Chinook, creates jobs, small community stability, recreation, ecological health and high quality food in a self-perpetuating system requiring little input from us once sustainable.

Sadly, the Chinook return on the Yukon River this past summer was so weak that no harvest was allowed at all. This far away debacle was caused in large part by a poorly monitored Bering Sea pollock by-catch in previous decades. Enjoy your fast-food fish sandwiches.

The natural world is not just some entertaining backdrop for our amusement, nor merely a storehouse of goods for short-term profit, but our one and only “life support system” (Paul Ehrlich). The salvation of salmon may well be a key to our own salvation. Stand for Salmontopia.

— Editor’s note: Retired NPS ranger Steve Ulvi is finishing a self-built homestead on San Juan Island under supervision of his “better half.” Read earlier columns by Ulvi, “Once countless wild salmon replaced by status quo,” Jan. 28; “Wild places: Sustenance for the soul,” Aug. 27, or online, at