UW Today

This is an archived article.

October 9, 2003

Parallels exist to area salmon strife

News and Information

New laws protected salmon spawning grounds in 17 rivers, prohibiting the streams from being blocked with dams or fishing nets and imposing stiff fines for violations. It was hoped these steps would halt the sharp salmon population decline in the rivers.

The year was 1715, and King George I of England enacted the laws in an effort to protect salmon runs throughout Great Britain. The attempt, and many more that came after, proved to be largely fruitless. Today few salmon ply British waterways, the victims of overfishing, degraded habitat, harnessing water power for industry, and misguided use of hatcheries to restore salmon runs, which ultimately hurt more than helped.

Strikingly, much the same scenario began playing out 100 years later in the rivers of northeastern North America. A century after that it began again in the Pacific Northwest.

David Montgomery, a UW professor of Earth and space sciences, details these parallels in a new book, King of Fish, The Thousand Year Run of Salmon, published this month by Westview Press, a member of Perseus Books Group.

Montgomery also outlines protections, different from those that have failed in the past, that he believes might save the remaining Northwest salmon runs. They include:


  • Establishing independent riverkeepers to enforce laws, implement recovery efforts and coordinate actions among different levels of government.

  • Creating salmon sanctuaries in river bottoms and flood plains.

  • Stopping fishing for at-risk species for five to 10 years, then restricting fishing to no more than half of any run.

“It’s not too late in this region to apply the lessons of past experiments, but it’s getting close to too late,” he said. “Relative to Maine, we still have a ton of fish.”

Montgomery was a member of the independent science panel for Washington state’s Governor’s Salmon Recovery Panel, serving as vice chairman from 1999 through 2001. It was in that role that he noticed there were many local plans for protecting salmon but no comprehensive regional strategy. He began to explore accounts of salmon protection in earlier times and concluded that history was being repeated in the Northwest, that the region’s salmon were on a perilous course.

His book quotes a variety of historic documents, starting before the decline of European salmon. The natural history of salmon wasn’t apparent to Europeans of the 1400s, but measures needed to maintain the fish were pretty well understood, he writes. “Quite simply, it was recognized as perfectly obvious that to keep a river full of salmon, enough adult salmon had to reach their spawning grounds, and enough juvenile salmon had to reach the sea.”

But he outlines how time and again, in England, in New England and eastern Canada, and in the Pacific Northwest, that simple strategy has been thwarted. In some places nets stretched across streams and captured virtually all adults returning to spawn. In some places dams were erected to operate mills or to generate electricity, blocking many salmon from reaching their spawning ground and hampering young fish trying to reach the ocean.

By the turn of the 20th century, the progress of technology made it possible for fishing fleets to catch so many salmon that the haul exceeded the demand. The book notes that so many fish were caught in one season that Seattle canneries couldn’t pack them all, so the large excess of dead fish was simply dumped.

Actions such as harvesting timber along riverbanks and installing impervious paved surfaces turned gentle runoff into torrents that scoured the gravel from spawning beds. Residential development brought flood-control measures that straightened river channels and changed them from quiet salmon nurseries into fast-flowing highways.

Even a well-intentioned tactic — using hatcheries to bolster troubled salmon runs — has backfired, Montgomery believes. Washington state hatcheries turned out 4.5 million juvenile Chinook salmon in 1896 and nearly a century later, in the early 1990s, exceeded 100 million. Yet Chinook salmon are a threatened species in the Puget Sound region of Washington.

One reason, Montgomery said, is that hatchery fish, fed a special diet to promote fast growth, are larger than wild salmon by the time they are released. Hatchery fish also are accustomed to keen competition for food, and once turned loose into local streams they can outmuscle the smaller wild salmon. But they aren’t as well adapted for life in the ocean, and it is unclear how many hatchery salmon return to spawn in the streams where they were released.

King of Fish documents how, historically, laws protecting salmon were routinely violated. Those charged with enforcement often didn’t know what the laws stated and so violators went free.

The book tells of a time when salmon were so plentiful that the English gentry was barred from forcing servants to eat it more than three times a week. But as the human population grew and rivers changed, salmon stocks began to dwindle. As the fish became scarcer they also became more valuable and so were caught in ever-increasing numbers. The book documents how that scenario has played out time after time.

Previous policies have been established only with an eye toward what happens to salmon in the future, Montgomery said. But he believes policy makers have to determine how big a salmon population they want and then work backwards, in some cases undoing past actions. For instance, he suggests removing homes from the flood plain on some stretches of river to allow the stream to meander back and forth, flooding naturally and maintaining salmon habitat.

But, he contends, a decision on how to proceed should come from weighing all of the options, not by waiting until there are no options left.

“We could decide that we don’t want to have salmon in the region, or that we just want to have enough to take school kids out to see them every year. It’s pretty hard to drive them to extinction because they’re pretty resilient,” he said. “But I think the question is whether we want to have viable commercial fisheries rather than just remnant runs, a few fish that you can look at but not touch.”