Lessons from Salmon

Someone at The Salmon Project had a really good idea.  It was to undertake a “book drop,” distributing more than a thousand copies of David Montgomery’s, King of Fish:  The Thousand-Year Run of Salmon (Westview Press 2003) to schools, libraries and other interested parties all around Alaska.  I had read this volume many years ago and the book drop recently brought it back on my radar. 

In King of Fish, author David Montgomery analyzes the decline, in many cases the near extirpation, of once-abundant salmon fisheries in Great Britain and northern Europe, in New England and Canada, and in the Pacific Northwest.  The book is still fresh and relevant, an engrossing read, chock full of information, and ending with practical insights and a rousing call to action.   

The Salmon Project says that “one of the most thought-provoking things about this book ... is that there’s no Alaska chapter.  Montgomery touches on our great state a little bit, but his story arc really ends in Puget Sound.  We (and he) know Alaska is one of the last great strongholds of salmon in the world.  We're writing the current history of salmon and humans every day.  So we want to invite Alaskans to think about what our own chapter may be.”

The key theme of King of Fish, which the author thoroughly documents, is that the historic decline of salmon stocks has not occurred because people didn’t know any better or because they just didn’t care.  Instead, the depredation of the fishery happened despite the best efforts of thoughtful people and bodies politic to protect and preserve them.  

How could this be?

When fisheries management and conservation have clashed with financial interests in development and exploitation, the salmon have consistently lost – not every single time, but often enough that the incremental and inexorable accumulation of individual short-term decisions has eroded and whittled away salmon populations and habitats to the point that they collapsed.

In the Pacific Northwest, for example, intensive salmon fishing on the Columbia River dates from at least 8-9,000 years ago, but Native Americans didn’t dam the rivers and their annual harvest of a few million fish was sustainable.  At the time of first European contact with the tribes of western Washington, salmon are believed to have outnumbered humans by at least a thousand to one.  Now there are more people than fish.

Atlantic salmon were once found across all of northern Europe.  They are now essentially extinct everywhere except Norway, Ireland, Iceland and Scotland.  Similar devastation of wild salmon populations has occurred in Canada and New England.

Alaska stands today as a singular exception to this pattern, with large and sustainable stocks of five species of wild Pacific salmon.

Montgomery traces the root causes, demonstrating through numerous examples that you can literally bank on the economic value of fish harvest or hydropower or irrigation or any number of other ephemeral interests to outweigh the uncertainties and risk-based arguments on the other side. 

There is a systemic imbalance in these interests that all but guarantees that the fish will lose whenever decision making is left to local interests.  There are only two notable exceptions:  pre-industrial Britain, when royal authority provided a respite from overfishing, and Alaska, where federal regulation historically provided a significant measure of protection for salmon interests. 

You can see this dynamic playing out even today, where the relevant federal agency is of course the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  For example, the EPA recently invoked Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to protect Bristol Bay from risks posed by the proposed Pebble Mine in the headwaters of its salmon streams.  

Bristol Bay has strong runs of all five species of Pacific salmon and specifically supports the world's largest runs of sockeye salmon, producing approximately half of all the sockeye salmon in the world.  Without the EPA's intervention, state mining regulators almost certainly would have permitted large-scale mining despite the risks and uncertainties for this last remaining salmon stronghold.  Unfortunately, the EPA's action is currently tied up in legal knots.  For a detailed discussion, see last week's post, Legal Roundup 3 -- Pebble Mine.

Montgomery sums it up neatly:  “One of the most obvious lessons of past experience is that local control rarely protects salmon over the long run without direction from a higher authority, whether the king, a federal agency, or, as for Native Americans, the Creator through deeply ingrained cultural practices.” (230)  

That is the lesson taught by the global history of salmon.  Will we learn from it?

The King of Fish is just as informative and thought provoking today as when it was first published.  And its core lesson that laws and regulations, and centralized authority to back them up, are needed to restrain unfettered exploitation of natural resources, has applications far beyond salmon.  It is the story of conservation writ large, with obvious analogies to effective public policy on climate change, fracking, wilderness preservation and a host of similar issues.

Sockeye salmon spawning in a tributary of the Nushagak River, which drains into Bristol Bay downstream from proposed large-scale mining activity at the Pebble deposit.

Sockeye salmon spawning in a tributary of the Nushagak River, which drains into Bristol Bay downstream from proposed large-scale mining activity at the Pebble deposit.


In Legacy, I suggested that few citizens today would curse President Theodore Roosevelt for  using the federal Antiquities Act to block mining in the Grand Canyon long enough so that Congress could designate it as a national park.  It is the same story as salmon, illustrating the need for strong central authority.  As Douglas Brinkley notes in his biography of Roosevelt, The Wilderness Warrior:  "What disturbed Roosevelt ... was that the Arizona territory was debating whether to preserve the canyon or mine it for zinc, copper, asbestos, etc.  ...  To Roosevelt, the Grand Canyon was beyond debate by the locals:  it must become the exclusive property of the United States to be saved for future generations." (527)

For more on the Pebble mine proposal in the headwaters of Bristol Bay, see Legal RoundupLegal Roundup 2 and  Legal Roundup 3 -- Pebble Mine.  For excellent books about Alaska salmon, see Debbie Miller's A King Salmon Journey, reviewed in It Takes a Watershed, and Amy Gulick's Salmon in the Trees:  Life in Alaska's Tongass Rain Forest.