The Frontal Cortex

Saving Wild Salmon

I was raised on Costco farmed salmon, those mealy slabs of pinkish fish protein. My first bite of wild salmon was a revelation. It was a different species of taste, so rich and oily and strong. You could practically taste the swim upstream. So I was interested in this WSJ article on the billions of conservation dollars that have been wasted on wild salmon in the Northwest. The failed program offers a lesson in the difficulty of tampering with the logic of nature, even when our intentions are noble:

For more than a quarter of a century, a federal agency in the Pacific Northwest has been running the world’s most expensive wildlife restoration program, designed to save 13 species of endangered salmon and steelhead.

The Bonneville Power Administration, responding to concern about dwindling fish populations, has spent more than $8 billion helping salmon travel from the mountain streams of their birth to the Pacific Ocean and back again, where they lay eggs for the next generation. Impeding their journey are several hydroelectric dams.

The agency has little to show for its efforts. In any given year, only 1% to 3.5% of the fish complete the 1,800-mile round-trip fish trek, which begins 20 miles northeast of Lewiston, Idaho, and continues down the Snake and Columbia rivers. Fish scientists say the success rate should be at least double that.

With the help of elaborate handling and tracking equipment, Bonneville is beginning to figure out what has gone wrong. Previously overlooked dangers abound. Some of the perils, including federally protected birds and sea lions — as well as Canadian fishermen — are beyond the agency’s control.

Others, it turns out, include Bonneville’s own efforts. In one well-intended move, the agency transports some salmon around the dams on special barges. After being deposited clear of the whirring turbines, the disoriented fish are easy pickings for predators.

The outlook remains gloomy next year, says Michael Ford, who directs the conservation biology division at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fishery science center in Seattle. Because of shifting currents, he says, the ocean is expected to be warmer, which is worse for the fish; warm waters carry less food. “We can’t be confident that these populations are viable in the long term,” he says.

P.S. For those who like poetry with their seafood, I recommend Stanley Kunitz’s “King of the River,” about the freshwater journey of dying salmon. The poem ends with this epic sentence, a line so beautiful it fills me with guilt whenever I pass a sockeye salmon sitting on ice in my local supermarket:

On the threshold
of the last mystery,
at the brute absolute hour,
you have looked into the eyes
of your creature self,
which are glazed with madness,
and you say
he is not broken but endures,
limber and firm
in the state of his shining,
forever inheriting his salt kingdom,
from which he is banished


  1. #1 Michele
    September 19, 2006

    That’s depressing. I love wild salmon and with the salmon fishing season drastically curtailed in San Francisco Bay Area, wild salmon has been quite precious (and the price reflects that!). I never buy farmed salmon (bad for the enviornment as well as being tasteless) so it looks like no salmon for now.

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