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Our Legacy of Killing Fish

by Jon Ochi
Idaho Falls Post Register, November 12, 2003

For 175 years, Pacific Northwest industries, farmers and dams came first
and the region's salmon and steelhead runs came second.
If the fish are to survive, those priorities must change

The goal: To have healthy wild salmon and steelhead. We reach the goal by creating a salmon-friendly environment. History gives perspective.

Four extractive industries hurt salmon.

First, fur traders extracted nearly 100 percent of the Northwest's beavers. As an example, just one trading post in Colville, Wash., removed 3,000 beavers per year for eight years. By 1850, beavers were decimated. Beaver ponds no longer provided spawning habitat, sediment control or flood control.

Second, miners dredged creek beds, washed out whole mountainsides and poisoned creeks with heavy metals and chemicals. By 1865, our own Boise River had completely lost its salmon fishery because of mining.

Third, loggers cut trees closest to rivers so logs could be floated downstream to sawmills. Riparian zones (areas along the river banks) were gouged out by floating log drives. Erosion and sedimentation increased along the barren banks. The floating log drives occurred as recently as 1970 on Idaho's Clearwater River.

Fourth, fishermen used fish traps, gillnets and seines to perform the equivalent of forest clearcutting. Commercial fishermen thought leaving a fish uncaught meant someone else would catch it if you did not.

The four extractive industries "clear-cut" beaver, minerals, logs and fish without regard to long-term habitat damage and without interest in giving anything back to the environment.

Four cultivating industries further hurt salmon.

First, land cultivators drained water from rivers, leaving some completely dry. In 1888, the Oregon Fish Commission complained Bruneau River irrigators had dewatered the river so salmon could no longer spawn. Also, unscreened diversion canals funneled off millions of migrating baby salmon to simply die in farm fields. Many canals are unscreened even today.

Second, cultivators of livestock allowed grazing animals to trample stream banks, causing erosion, sedimentation and destruction of spawning habitat. In the West by 1890, 26 million cows grazed on unfenced, unrestricted lands and rivers. In fairness, many present-day cultivators of land and animals have done their share to create salmon-friendly conditions. Hats off to them.

Third, cultivators of fish promoted fish hatcheries as the magic bullet. The first Pacific salmon hatchery on the McCloud River in California began Sept. 2, 1872. After 131 years, hatcheries flourish, but salmon are extinct in 40 percent of their historic territory. Steelhead fishermen know wild fish are much stronger than hatchery-bred fish. Hatchery fish compete with wild fish for food and habitat. Hatcheries do nothing to make habitat more salmon-friendly.

Fourth, cultivators of power built 27 dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers' main stems. Baby salmon become disoriented, preyed upon and confused in the dam-created slack water.

Four extractive industries did long-lasting damage to salmon. Four cultivating industries in too many instances still create a salmon-hostile world. Lately, salmon must contend with industry pollutants and urban runoff.

In the almost unanimous opinion of fish scientists, the best salmon-friendly action is to remove the lower Snake dams and fairly compensate people who are economically damaged. The economic benefits on balance outweigh the losses. Having wild salmon and steelhead will make more money than keeping the dams.

To salmon naysayers, one request: If you want to save wild salmon, propose a better solution. You say, "No dam removal, use flushing flows instead." It is time to provide those flushing flows with fair compensation to farmers, but you say no to that solution. What do you propose?

In sum, after 175 years of damage to salmon, we need to restore balance to save this Northwest icon. In so doing, history will say we recognized our salmon-hostile actions of the past and we wisely restored healthy wild salmon and steelhead for our future.

by Jon Ochi, a member of the board of directors of Idaho Rivers United.
Idaho's Energy Destiny
Post Register, November 12, 2003

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