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Save Our Wild Salmon

bill_mckibbenDecember 1, 2008
by Bill McKibben
To stand by a stream choked with spawning salmon is to understand nature’s abundance in a new way. You can barely see the water for all the fish. Plentiful carcasses discarded by bears fertilize the surrounding forest — scientists have found salmon nitrogen in the needles of nearby pines.

This is how the whole world once was. Our continent alone had dozens of places — the Grand Banks, Chesapeake Bay, the Everglades, the mouth of the Mississippi or the Hudson or the Columbia — that teemed with underwater life. Only a few of those places are left. That’s why it’s so maddening that, even as the Bush administration finally fades away, they’ve aimed a few of their parting shots at this most iconic of American fish.

Consider, for instance, Idaho’s Snake River, where the annual sockeye run was once mammoth and predictable. More than 40,000 fish arrived each year at this terminus of their life’s journey, ready to reproduce and die. Connecting Redfish Lake was named fro the color the water seemed to become when all these fish returned. In 2007, just four fish made it back. Biologists were using the term “functional extinction.” But this year the number topped 400. The reason why is clear: Two years ago, a federal court judge forced the dams on the river to flush more water than usual over the top — that let many more fish survive the trip downstream. If we just took out those dams, there’s every reason to think the run would return in force. What small amount of electricity the dams generate could be replaced by energy conservation or alternatives such as sun or wind power. This should be sweet news for salmon, for fishermen, for windmill makers — for everyone, really.

But the Bush administration has a different storyline in mind. This fall, they released a Biological Opinion, or BiOp, that covers hydropower management. It could prevent the kind of court intervention that set up this year’s salmon success.

As the environmental group Save Our Wild Salmon puts it, under the new federal plan recent gains “will fall by the wayside.”

Meanwhile, in Alaska’s Bristol Bay, there’s actually a healthy salmon run — the largest in the world. I’ve sat on a lifeguard chair next to a state employee with a clicker who counts the fish running upstream to make sure there’s a sufficient spawning population before each summer’s fishing season can begin. It’s on of the world’s very few sustainable fisheries, a triumph of conservationist foresight that yields a healthy economic boost to the state’s fishing fleet every year. Wild Alaskan salmon is one of the few fish on the planet you can eat with a clean conscience. If our forefathers had known anything about limits, our whole continent could look like Bristol Bay.

But forget the forefathers. Our current government wants to lease large parts of the Bering Sea, including Bristol Bay, for oil and gas development. They have enthusiastic supporters — Sarah Palin, for instance. Shell is doing its part, running a clever campaign with the tagline “oil and water can mix.”

You can take an oil company’s word, or that of, say, World Wildlife Fund spokeswoman Margaret Williams. “Based on the best available science and published literature,” she says, “offshore development is too great a risk to pose to a renewable resource that feeds millions of people.” Still not sure? Google “Exxon Valdez.”

There’s no question that we’ve endured the worst environmental policies of an president since the word environment was coined. They haven’t simply neglected the environment, they’ve concentrated on destroying it — and in countless places they’ve succeeded. But where health remains, where renewal is still a possibility — places like the Snake River — well, that’s where we’ve got to focus our own efforts. The election is over, but the work is just beginning.

Bill McKibben is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College, the author of a dozen books about the environment, and the cofounder of the campaign, a global grassroots effort to fight climate change.
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