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We All Need to Heed Warning
from this Magnificent Fish

by Robert L. Jamieson Jr.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - January 9, 2004

Salmon is king, a glistening, totemic symbol of the Pacific Northwest.

The magnificent fish embodies our spirit and history.

Native people fished for salmon along the Columbia 10,000 years ago. Tribal elders swear there was a time you could walk across the great river on the backs of the migrating marvels.

In 1792, explorer Robert Gray, the first non-Indian to enter the Columbia, cast his eyes on teeming waters.

Sockeye, chinook or coho, salmon define us the way crabs represent Maryland or the way shrimp feed the souls of people on the Louisiana Gulf Coast.

That's why the report released yesterday showing troublesome levels of cancer-causing toxins in salmon is a bombshell to the psyche of our region.

It hits home.

"Fish is a measuring stick of the health of our ecosystem," explains Steve Robinson, a policy analyst for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. "We've got problems here -- and we've been saying that for years. It all goes back to too many people being in the area, pollutants being in the water and the degradation of these habitats."

"Salmon gives strength," adds Cecile Hansen, chairwoman of the Duwamish tribe, whose brother, father and grandfather were born with fishing in their blood. "We all love the salmon."

The report focuses on toxins in salmon -- particularly farm-raised but wild as well -- in this country and abroad. Hansen calls it "a wake-up call" for the fish industry and a signal for conscientious people to walk the talk about protecting the environment.

"We are all going to suffer from this plank in the eye that's blinding us to what is going on all around us," Hansen tells me. "We're killing our Earth."

In the early 1900s, anthropologist Arthur Ballard collected the legends of the Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Snoqualmie and other Native American tribes of the Puget Sound region. In these tales salmon appear as individuals as well as spiritual beings called "Salmon" with a capital S.

"These stories as a group describe how people should treat salmon and emphasize that salmon runs are not an annual certainty," according to the Web site, which chronicles our state's past.

"(The salmon runs) could and did fail for any number of reasons, sometimes because people had acted inappropriately."

Native epics -- such as one from the Snoqualmie tribe about Hado the Humpback Salmon -- speak to how deeply salmon are embroidered into local culture. The epics also offer cautionary tales to future generations about the need for environmental stewardship. "If Hado ... is angry as he comes up the river," tribal legend goes, "he brings a sickness ... upon the people."

Nature does have a way of showing something is amiss.

A few years ago, thousands of farm-raised Atlantic salmon escaped from their pen and swam to the mouth of the Nisqually River, where a group of hungry sea lions and seals were waiting.

The sea lions and seals wanted no part of the farm-raised fish.

"They wouldn't touch them," recalls Billy Frank, a Nisqually tribal elder who is chairman of the Northwest Indian Fish Commission. "Nature's way of saying something."

Some people have been listening.

In the 1990s, Seattle City Light launched the Salmon First initiative. The project adjusted utility operations to help endangered fish runs on the Skagit, Cedar and Tolt rivers. Also during the '90s, federal officials listed several salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest as being either "threatened" or "endangered."

Later, the National Marine Fisheries Service put in place broad regulations to protect the declining number of chinook runs in Puget Sound.

Today, the push to keep local waters clean continues.

You can see it among impassioned Native American groups and in the tireless efforts of environmental organizations such as Puget Soundkeeper Alliance.

You can also see an appreciation for wildlife's wonders among the crowds that gather to watch salmon begin their spawning sojourn at the Hiram Chittenden Locks in Ballard.

The sight is truly miraculous. But if those crowds could see the trouble beneath the water's surface -- the trouble suggested by the salmon report -- they'd wipe the smiles from their faces.

They'd no doubt want this assault from pollutants to stop -- for the sake of the fish, for the sake of the environment, for the sake of us all.

Robert L. Jamieson Jr., P-I columnist
We All Need to Heed Warning from this Magnificent Fish
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 9, 2004

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