Monday, February 16, 2015

Do We Want Salmon on Toast or Salmon to be Toast?

By Bob Ferris

In 2003 I wrote an opinion piece in the Santa Barbara News Press about steelhead and water.  The basic message revolved around a childhood drinking fountain taunt to someone taking too long slurping in the recess re-watering queue.  It went something like this: Hey, leave some water for the fish.

Entrance to Museum of Natural and Cultural History
on the University of Oregon campus in Eugene.
I think about this now because last Thursday night during a Museum of Natural and Cultural History Darwin Days talk tribal fisheries biologist Ryan Branstetter from the Umatilla tribe said basically the same thing in talking about salmon and steelhead.  Only his message was “take only what you need,” but it comes down to nearly the same thing.  And I wonder if it is really enough.

My 2003 piece dealt specifically with water conservation and water levels in Lake Cachuma having a great impact on the prospect of native steelhead recovery in the Santa Barbara region.  Since that time my concern over those salmonids and others has snowballed to include the impacts of climate change, ocean acidification, and various land uses including forestry practices and the spraying of herbicides.

Predictions for one river in Washington showing more water
when not critical and less when water is critical.
Each time I see another presentation or read another study the prognosis gets worse.  Take a look at any credible river flow projection.  All that I have seen for Pacific salmon and steelhead country in the lower 48 states bottom out in significant ways leaving no water at times or waters that are so shallow that thermal dams—those areas too warm for fish to cross—will make most watersheds unusable for these iconic anadromous fish.  To make this last point in presentations I have often said that salmon and steelhead are “thermally damned” and I think this is apt.

Then too you have ocean acidification (again accelerated by fossil fuel use) and its nefarious chemical impacts—particularly on calcium-shelled mollusks like pteropods or sea butterflies.  Never heard of them or seen them?  Ocean acidification is basically melting the shells of these tiny planktonic snails frequently referred to as sea-going “potato chips” because of their popularity as a food item for sea birds, whales, food fish, and salmon.   To those paying attention this represents a deterioration of the lower levels of the oceanic food web on which so much depends including our own species.

In all of this it is hard to stay optimistic.  I had a conversation last year with Mike Finley head of the Turner Foundation about this topic.  They are working with the Wild Salmon Center and focusing much of their protection efforts in Kamchatka because they have seen all of the above and more. Mike and the Turner trustees have concluded that we have to save salmon somewhere and this may be the best, coldest and most remote bet.  The idea being that we save salmon in Siberia for eventual recolonization after it all falls apart elsewhere in the northern Pacific.   I am not quite sure that I am absolutely here yet, but I am close especially after seeing the meager snowpack in the Oregon Cascades this past weekend.
Mid-February snow coverage near the rim of Crater Lake.

So where does this leave us moving forward?  My sense is that we have to do everything in our power to stop our long term pattern of allowing the incremental death our shared resources by the “stupid.”   By this I mean our continual practice of allowing something to proceed not because it is a good idea but because it is not going to have a “significant” impact and even allowing some fudging on that.  This just-one-more-finger-full-of-frosting approach has left us with a greatly denuded and crumbling cake of a planet.  This might have been a great strategy when our resources were robust and stable but it simply is not in any way prudent when our natural resources are degraded and declining.

What does this mean operationally?  Let's start with no new pipelines or coal ports for starters—none (1,2,3).  Likewise, proposals for suction dredge mining, public lands grazing lease extensions, narrowing stream-side buffers on public lands and herbicide use in forests have to migrate from the fringe to the fore in terms of priority battles for all who care about salmon and western waters.  And we have to look at the “stupid” in our own lives and realize that our choices or inattention to our own impacts need our immediate attention too.

The March 2015 edition of National Geographic that hit my mailbox yesterday bears the headline: THE WAR ON SCIENCE.  And this gives a hint of the flip-side of this equation in terms of the positive steps that must be taken.  In short, we need to embrace the “smart” at the same time we are rejecting the stupid.  And that means navigating through the Fox News-style, Koch-induced smoke screens to where the actual science lives and breathes.  We need to become informed rather than molded by moneyed interests and then work together in a logical and realistic manner.

Once informed, we need to look honestly at dams, hatcheries, agricultural policies, land uses and energy systems and then engage in a massive redesign exercise based upon what will yield the greatest good with the least disruption.   Where dams are a major problem remove them and where that is not feasible design systems that more effectively eliminate their impacts.  Where hatcheries are disrupting natural cycles or contributing to genetic pollution create a restoration-driven glide path.  With energy too we have to envision a goal and then put all our efforts towards developing technologies and approaches that get us there rather than being sidetracked by this almost traitorous climate denial sideshow.

In this “smart” element we also have to look at ourselves and our actions.  Rather than sneering at that “hippy” across the street who has changed his or her front lawn into a food garden and decorated their house corners with rain barrels, we have to understand that those rain barrels may functionally act to mitigate disappearing snowpacks.   Since about six inches of snow is the equivalent of one inch of rainwater that “eyesore” might start looking a little better if it was thought of as a 4’X4’X5’ block of snowpack.

Co2ld Waters - Official Trailer from Conservation Media on Vimeo.

And, more importantly, we have to elect candidates and support incumbents who understand the importance of all of the above.  This likely cannot happen in a political system overshadowed by the Citizens United ruling or in the absence of something resembling the Fairness Doctrine policing our media.  Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard nails in his "crooks or dumb-asses" quote in the above video clip that needs to be played again and again.

Lots to ponder in this too long blog post, but it needs saying (and saying again).  The world has become more complex and treacherous since I used to utter the school yard taunt mentioned in the opening paragraph.  Now the taunt needs to be amplified and augmented with awareness and action.  The fish and ultimately we depend on this in so many ways.

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