Wild Pacific salmon are integral to the West Coast’s cultural, ecological, and economic fabric. They form the very foundations of the spiritual practices of the region’s tribes. Their remarkable life cycle compels us to pay attention to the natural systems, both terrestrial and marine, which support us. The region’s commercial and recreational salmon harvest provides employment for thousands of people and sustenance for many more.
Salmon have a truly magnificent life cycle. In the cold, clear waters of a stream perhaps hundreds of miles from the sea, each salmon emerges from an egg with a yolk-sac still attached. It receives nourishment from the yolk-sac until it is empty, at which point the small fry must begin feeding on microinvertebrates in order to continue its growth. At a certain point the salmon grows too large for its small river habitat, and it swims downstream all the way to the ocean. A chinook salmon spends 2 or 3 years in the ocean, feeding on shrimp and krill and growing to about 30 or 40 pounds. Then it is time to spawn. Using tools such as celestial navigation and their sense of smell, salmon can navigate hundreds of miles upriver. Once a salmon leaves the ocean it will stop feeding, instead conserving its energy for the grueling journey. Reaching its natal waters, a salmon must find a mate. Females hollow out a nest, called a redd, in the gravel using their tails and then deposit thousands of eggs in the cobbles. Then a male must fertilize the eggs by covering them with a substance called milt. Both male and female salmon die after spawning.
Pacific salmon have been a critical part of indigenous culture for as long as people have occupied the West’s coastal river valleys. Their return from the ocean was cause for celebration, and the traditional methods of harvesting and preparing salmon established different roles and functions within the tribe. The fish formed a substantial component of the native northwesterner’s diet. Central Valley chinook is widely recognized as one of the most nutritious foods in the world. Salmon have long held spiritual significance for the West Coast’s tribes, too. The annual migrations of salmon out to and back from the ocean provide a steady pulse, structure to support rituals and ceremonies.
Anadromous species like salmon provide an ecological link between freshwater and marine ecosystems. Salmon evolved alongside the coastal rivers and streams that they inhabit, and so each salmon run is uniquely and intimately adapted to the specific characteristics of its watershed. From the temperature of the water to the volume and timing of the flow to the exact composition of the streambed sediment, salmon have been profoundly shaped by their habitat. At the same time, this habitat is also shaped by the salmon: each chinook dies shortly after spawning, and the nutrients locked in its flesh return to the ecosystem, nourishing animals up and down the food chain with high-energy oils and rejuvenating the soil with nitrogen and phosphorus from the sea. Salmon utilize a variety of different habitats during their lives—stream, river, estuary, ocean—and if any of these systems is compromised, the survival of the species is jeopardized. However, even among distinct runs of salmon, fall-run central valley chinook, for example, some fish will have different survival strategies, migrating earlier or later, faster or slower. Depending on fluctuating river conditions, one year the early migrators may be more successful, and the next year the lingerers might see greater survival. In this way we are reminded that complexity and diversity are important. Simplified, channelized, homogenized river systems reduce the margin of error for wildlife.
As European settlement began in the West, salmon continued to be an important food source and economic resource. The first salmon cannery began operating in 1864 on the banks of the Sacramento River, and dozens of operations had popped up on the Sacramento, Klamath, Columbia and more west coast rivers within decades. Ocean trolling for salmon began around the turn of the century, meaning that commercial fishermen could catch salmon in the prime of life, before they started losing fat and decomposing during the arduous swim upriver. Advances in refrigeration technology made fresh fish accessible to new markets, and so the commercial fishery continued to thrive. In this way, entire port communities developed their foundations in commercial and recreational salmon fishing. From the ice plant to the bait shop to the local restaurants where fishermen eat while in port, the economy is dependent upon the abundance of this fish.
During the past two salmon seasons, the waters off of California and most of Oregon have been completely closed to commercial fishing. The collapse of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta ecosystem has been paralleled by the collapse of the Central Valley chinook salmon population, and until the run can meet goals set to ensure an adequate population base, the season will continue to be cancelled. The effects of the closures are felt up and down the coast of three states. Recent economic studies estimate that, between the commercial and recreational sectors, the current shutdown of the salmon fishery is costing California alone 1.4 billion dollars in lost economic activity. Even more stunning is the potential impact of the recovery of Sacramento River salmon. The report, from the American Sportfishing Association, estimates that a full recovery of Sacramento salmon could provide $5.7 billion and create 94,000 new jobs. “Our commercial fishing industry is capable of harvesting and processing up to 25 million pounds of salmon that will help to generate this economic activity,” said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA) which represents the West Coast commercial fishing fleet. “Rebuilding the salmon stocks will have a profound effect on thousands of lives.”