Editor’s note: This posting was authored by Pat Ford. Many years ago, Pat served as the executive director of ICL. Most recently, he was the executive director for Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition. Pat lives in Boise, Idaho, and periodically contributes to the ICL blog.
Rocky Barker’s new series on Idaho’s salmon and steelhead began May 22 in the Idaho Statesman. In periodic chunks from now to October, he will explore the complexities of the salmon equation, in the depth that salmon and our stakes in their existence demand.
The fundamental question before Idahoans between now and 2021 is simple: how much do we want salmon in the heart of Idaho 25 or 50 years from now? In 2021 our region will answer that question officially and politically, pursuant to a court order and calendar. Idaho’s role and weight in the Northwest’s answer will be determined in the next few years by Idahoans. Rocky’s series will inform anyone of any persuasion who wants to answer for themselves, learn from the answers of others and be part of the public choice.
But Rocky doesn’t write the headlines. His first article had a badly inaccurate sub-heading: "Saving Idaho’s Salmon: Nature again turns against returning fish that already face long odds."
"Nature turns against salmon" is like saying "winter turns against trees."
Yes, current conditions in the North Pacific Ocean, where Idaho salmon spend two to four years, are less favorable for salmon numbers than over the last decade or so. There is less food, and so fewer salmon will return to Idaho while those conditions persist.
But, as Idaho trees would not do well without winter, salmon as we know them would not exist without ocean cycles. By imposing constantly changing conditions on the fish-what scientists call dynamic conditions-these and other cycles provide the evolutionary grindstone against which salmon and steelhead hone themselves into a spectacularly productive and resilient animal. Ocean and atmospheric cycles that salmon exist within are at a turn in the cycle less favorable to salmon numbers. That doesn’t mean it is less favorable to the fitness, the dynamic physical genius, of salmon.
Rocky gets it right in his story below the headline. The main lesson of the marine cycle at its current low point for salmon numbers is that “ocean conditions… no longer mask the unfavorable conditions in the Northwest rivers." Salmon have evolved their own cyclic fit with ocean cycles. The changes are in freshwater, where conditions for salmon are so massively degraded by people’s works that the low part of a natural abundance cycle now features salmon numbers so low as to threaten extinction.
Put a bit too simply, this turn in the ocean cycle will tell us, 25 years and over $10 billion after their official endangerment, how our efforts and investments for salmon are doing. 2017 projections and 2018 indicators suggest the answer will be, not nearly well enough. If Idaho wild steelhead, chinook salmon and sockeye salmon return the next few years at the poor numbers expected, we will learn that extinction in the wild still looms for them. We’ll know the 2017 facts in a few months, which Rocky and others will report.
My point is too simple because human-caused climate change is also affecting ocean conditions. Top prize for total damage to salmon still goes to dams and development. But hotter, sicker rivers and seas caused by climate change are coming up fast. The two work together. It will take major restorative and re-connective actions-soon-to counter them.
The accurate headline for stories on poor salmon returns is, "people turn against salmon." The problems lie with people’s works. On the flip side, the positive and hopeful threads in Rocky’s series (there will be several, right alongside the peril) will presage the way forward: people turn toward salmon, learn to work with them and with rivers, and thereby renew for our children the godly bond between people and salmon that is native to where we live.