Photos by: CHRIS PIETSCH
THEY ARE ONLY an inch or two long, little brown bullets darting just beyond the reach of fish biologist Charlie Dewberry as he peers through his diving mask into the shallow waters of Knowles Creek.
They'll stay in this Oregon Coast Range stream for another year, growing bigger and stronger before starting their magical and unexplained swim to the ocean.
Hugging the shoreline for the next two years, sometimes traveling 1,000 miles or more in search of food, these coho salmon will reverse course and - just as mysteriously - find their way back.
Back to the very stream where they were born.
Here, in the Siuslaw River tributary near Mapleton that Dewberry has been helping to restore for 15 years, they'll complete a ritual of mating and spawning that has endured for thousands of years.
Then they'll die. Even in death, the salmon complete the circle of life:
Their carcasses provide nutrients that help the next generation, survive.
For eons, salmon were the lifeblood of the Pacific Northwest's rivers, migrating by the millions each year up the Columbia, Rogue, Siuslaw and hundreds of other streams. They were sewn into the fabric of Northwest Indian culture, diet and religion. Then they served as the foundation of a world class commercial and sport fishery.
Salmon became a symbol of what we Northwesterners like to think is our unique link with the land and water. Knowing that these fish endured such severe natural hardships gave us strength.
"They are a life force, a symbol of life," says Joseph Cone, a Corvallis author of two respected' books on salmon issues. "There's an intimate link here between the physical world of the Northwest and the culture of the Northwest. Humans have drawn strength from the salmon, not only as food but a kind of cultural strength."
But now the salmon's world has come crashing down. The effects of 125 years of overfishing, logging, mining, grazing, road building, urban development, pollution and dam building have decimated the Northwest's once abundant salmon runs. Only 5 percent to 10 percent of the West Coast's historic runs remain.
After years of delay, the federal government is poised to act. It will decide by April 25 whether to protect coho in Oregon and Northern California under the Endangered Species Act. Coho would join a handful of Columbia and Snake river salmon species on the endangered list, signaling another round of limits on logging, grazing and other endeavors, but perhaps reviving a $100 million coho fishing industry in Oregon.
The coho Crisis also has given Gov. John Kitzhaber what may be his biggest political test yet Hoping to avoid a listing and federal interference, the governor has been lobbying the Clinton administration to adopt his coho-rescue plan, which relies on cooperation and volunteer- ism rather than the regulatory hammer of government.
"If we're successful with this, we can redefine the nature of the natural resource conflict out here in the West," Kitzhaber says.
Plenty of warning
Salmon are extinct in more than half their historic range, and more than 200 runs are in serious trouble. Oregon's wild coho migration of more than a million has fallen to fewer than 100,000.
But the salmon's plight didn't exactly sneak up on us.
As early as 1894, the nation's top fisheries official declared that overfishing would soon destroy the Columbia River's runs, which may have numbered 16 million in peak years. Fishermen essentially were mining the river, sometimes using horse-drawn seines to rake in thousands of fish on each net set.
The salmon catch on the Columbia peaked at 46.6 million pounds in 1911.
The Oregon Health Board tried an experiment that same year, lowering caged fish into the Willamette River in downtown Portland. They died within minutes from the pollution and oxygen deprived water.
Beginning in the 1930s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built 15 massive dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers, including Grand Coulee in 1941, which blocked migration to several hundred miles of streams in the upper Columbia.
[Note: The following information provided by John McKern of Fish Passage Solutions]
The Corps of Engineers did not construct Grand Coulee Dam. It was constructed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Grand Coulee Dam blocked over 1,100 miles of salmon habitat. Before being appointed Commissioner of Fisheries, Frank Bell was the personal secretary of Senator Clarence C. Dill, the Washington Senator credited with getting Grand Coulee Dam built.]
U.S. fish commissioner Frank Bell said in 1937 that the dams and farming practices were imperiling salmon runs. In 1957, The Dalles Dam inundated Celilo Falls, the ancient fishing grounds for Northwest Indian tribes.
And dams were only one way the salmon's habitat was drastically altered. Logging practices scoured streams, caused erosion that choked eggs and spawning grounds, and eliminated the big, tall trees along streams that fish need for good habitat.
In the 1950s, the Oregon Fish Commission issued the first government report blaming logging in the Coast Range for salmon declines. Many studies and reports followed.
Grazing also caused erosion and left streamsides trampled, while farming practices and urban development wiped out side channels fish need to feed and hide from predators.
In the 1970s, scientists identified a natural ocean-warming phenomenon, El Nino, which has been blamed for dramatic declines in ocean survival rates and wild fluctuations in fish populations from year to year.
The government's primary response was to build hatcheries that could pump out millions of salmon a year, propping up the commercial fishing industry. But over the years, fish biologists learned that hatcheries actually harmed wild fish by diluting the gene pool and creating an artificially high catch that resulted in even more wild fish being caught.
Minor steps included fishing regulations, the state's first forest- practices law and requiring fish ladders on dams.
It wasn't until the late 1980s and early 1990s that fish-protection efforts began to gain ground - and credibility.
A landmark 1991 American Fisheries Society report, "Pacific Salmon at the Crossroads," detailed more than 100 native fish runs that were already extinct and another 214 at risk of extinction.
The report had an enormous impact because it came from the nation's premier society of fisheries scientists instead of from environmentalists, who were locked in a protracted and bitter battle to save the Northwest's old growth forests.
That same year, the federal government put the first Northwest salmon species, Snake River sockeye, on the endangered species list. Two years earlier, only two sockeye had returned to Idaho's Redfish Lake.
Conservationists, fly-fishing groups and fisheries advocates began flooding the government with petitions to protect salmon, trout and steelhead throughout the West Coast, Idaho and Montana.
A few more Columbia salmon species were protected, as were Umpqua River cutthroat trout. The National Marine Fisheries Service has proposed listing West Coast steelhead, with a final decision scheduled for July, and bull trout, a freshwater fish ranging throughout several Western states.
Ultimately, federal protection of West Coast fish species could dwarf protections granted to the northern spotted owl seven years ago.
Environment and Jobs
Unlike the raging fight over old growth forests, there's little disagreement about the need for environmental protection for coho. Nearly everyone - the timber industry, fishermen, farmers and environmentalists - agree that coho are in trouble and need our help.
In fact, a recent Oregon Progress Board survey showed that 91 percent of Oregonians support saving salmon, and most would pay $1 to $10 a month to do so.
The Oregon Business Council, which includes the heads of the state's largest corporations, just released a report calling for strong measures to save the salmon.
"I've never heard anyone contest the value of saving salmon," says Howard Sohn, a member of the Oregon Board of Forestry and president of Sun Studs Inc., a timber company in Roseburg. "There's a universal recognition of the problem."
In addition to environmental concerns are the livelihoods of thousands of West Coast commercial fishermen. Coho had been part of a $1.2 billion, 62,000-job fishing industry stretching from San Diego to Bellingham, Washington.
Ocean coho fishing has been shut down for more than three years south of the Columbia. Fishermen in Oregon and California have had to find other part-time work, fish for less-lucrative species, make the long trip to Alaska or shut down altogether.
"I don't know anyone who's fishing full time anymore," says Glen Spain, who represents a coalition of commercial fishermen called the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "It' grim. We want to see fish on the back deck of our boats and a healthy ecosystem that supports it."
In that sense, saving salmon is unique among American conservation efforts. So often, environmental protection is boiled down to choice between jobs and the environment, between economic gain and protecting some cute critter.
Rescuing coho means protecting both jobs and the environment.
What should be done?
Since the first salmon were put on the endangered list, rescue efforts have focused on changing Columbia and Snake river dams. More water Is being spilled over the dams to speed up the salmon's migration and salmon are being barged around the fish-killing turbines.
Coho rescue efforts are aimed mostly at restoring stream habitat and protecting watersheds where fish runs remain relatively healthy. Still, disagreement remains on how to do that
Kitzhaber and the timber industry argue that a cooperative approach, with voluntary measures instead of the force of the Endangered Species Act, is the only way to get landowners to fix logging roads, leave more trees along streams and otherwise improve salmon habitat.
"Restoring streams and our salmon runs can become as much an ethic in Oregon as not throwing away beverage containers," Kitzhaber says. "But we've got to get past the us vs. them mentality that has driven so many natural resources debates before."
The Legislature so far has pledged $15 million a year for restoration projects and watershed-based planning. Two thirds of the money would pay for stream and watershed projects; the rest would be used to hire almost 40 state workers to develop "water quality" plans that could further limit logging, grazing, farming and urban development.
The timber industry has promised to fork over another $15 million a year for 10 years if coho aren't put on the endangered list. Kitzhaber wants local watershed councils to take over much of the work.
Kitzhaber also points out that, unlike his plan, the Endangered Species Act provides little protection for at-risk animals on private land.
Most conservationists, biologists and fisheries advocates praise Kitzhaber's plan as a bold and innovative approach to solving a long-running environmental issue.
"Kitzhaber's plan really aims at the grass roots and getting people involved in their watersheds," says Peter Moyle, a professor of fish biology at the University of California at Davis. "That's exactly what we need as a first step."
At the same time, though, conservationists say the governor's plan is weak, underfunded and too reliant on volunteers. They say the Endangered Species Act is needed to motivate landowners to do the right thing and to protect coho, on federal lands.
And both conservationists and fish biologists say the governor's plan doesn't strengthen logging and farming rules enough. Conservationists are urging the state to ban clear-cutting on steep, unstable slopes to reduce erosion and to leave more trees along streams for shade.
Even the National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency that will decide whether coho are added to the endangered species list, has repeatedly told the state it has major problems with the lack of logging rules to protect streams on private timberlands.
Spain, however, says too much emphasis is being put on the listing decision. While he favors listing, he says it's more important for the state to take stronger steps.
"Whether it is or isn't listed, the problems are the same, the solutions are the same, and the economic needs are the same," Spain says. "We need to focus on saving these salmon, not, (on) listing or no listing.
"The state should be in control, but we need federal involvement, too," he adds. "Frankly, I don't see any reason why they can't work together. We want to see Oregon firmly in control of the process but with the safety net of the ESA."
The salmon story
Beyond all the infighting over the listing, the governor's plan and how to pay for rescuing coho, there's a more fundamental reason why salmon should be saved, says Daniel Bottom, a research biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife.
In a recent essay, "Restoring Salmon Ecosystems: Myth and Reality," Bottom says:
"I think what we most need from salmon is their story. I do not mean the repetitive tale of decline that we know from the brief recorded history of European immigrants and the short columns of numbers in the reports of fishery managers."
"The tale we must learn is a far richer, ever-changing and interconnected story of nature and culture, which is programmed in the genes of salmon and recounted in the legends of ancient cultures."
"Encoded in the lives of salmon is a long history of survival that teaches us by example: their incredible struggle against all odds, their wandering spirit but steadfast fidelity to home, and their ultimate sacrifice to community."
"Through salmon we find a means for reconnecting the landscape, watersheds and cultures encompassed by their life cycles and impoverished by their decline. And through their restoration, we may sink our shallow roots a little deeper into this Northwest place."