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70 Years Ago:
Are Salmon Now Sold Down the River?

by William L. Finley
Nature Magazine, August 1936

What is the Attitude of the Commissioner of Fisheries?

The skeptical eye of every conservationist interested in the fish resources of America was cast at the Bureau of Fisheries when Frank Thomas Bell, real estate developer and political secretary to former Senator Clarence C. Dill of Washington, was appointed April 15, 1933, as United States Commissioner of Fisheries. The combined effort of various scientific groups had been centered at the time on trying to get a fish expert at the helm of the Bureau to guide it away from the rocks of commercialism and the whirlpool of politics. All threw up their hands when Senator Dill, key Democrat and a resident of the strategical center of the fishing industry, hoisted his political banner and passed the plum out to Mr. Bell.

Mr. Bell was frank in admitting that he was not a fish expert and had never belonged to any fisheries organization, either commercial or recreational. He said he accepted the position as head of the Bureau of Fisheries solely as an executive. He has served for over three years. Inasmuch as the future of some of our fish resources from both a commercial and a recreational standpoint depends upon the attitude and policy of the Commissioner, the records should be opened that the people may know the facts. They must demand sound conservation measures.

It is well known that lack of coordinating the work of federal departments is a primary difficulty in conserving our resources of land and water. The actions of one bureau often have nullified the efforts of another. Instances have been found where one bureau spent public funds in trying to conserve certain resources, while another destroyed them in wholesale numbers. At the present time one federal department is spending millions of dollars building high dams, while the records of the Bureau of Fisheries contain proof in abundance that this is the death knell of salmon runs worth many millions to our people.

The head of the Forest Service fights to prevent the destruction of federal forests. The Chief of the Biological Survey is continually waging battle to save the wildlife resources intrusted to his care. The salmon fisheries of California, Oregon, and Washington are rapidly slipping down hill. Who is fighting to prevent this loss?

When Mr. Bell accepted the position of United States Commissioner of Fisheries he was asked for a brief sketch of his achievements. According to custom this was published in "Who's Who in America." Among the accomplishments that he submitted were the following:

"Began as farmer in Grant Co., Wash., 1907; real estate business, Ephrata, Wash., 1910; apartment and hotel business, Seattle, 1912-18; County Commr., Grant Co., 1918-22; sec. to U.S. Senator Dill, 1922-33; apptd. U.S. Commissioner of Fisheries, Apr. 15, 1933. Active in promoting irrigation projects, especially Columbia Basin Project."

As secretary to Senator Dill, it may be noted that Mr. Bell promoted the Columbia Basin Project, which centers in the building of the Grand Coulee Dam on the upper Columbia in eastern Washington. Largely through Senator Dill's influence, $61,000,000 was allotted to start the dam. The first plan specified a low dam for the production of power only, and could have been supplied with fishways. When the question as to who would buy the power in this wide unsettled area was raised, plans were changed to furnish water for both power and irrigation. Instead of a low dam the new plans called for one about four hundred and fifty feet high, which engineers state will require federal appropriations of $200,000,000 or more. Federal reclamation projects are always "meat" for real estate speculators. When the work started on Grand Coulee it also started a boom in land values. All privately owned property in this arid unsettled area jumped in values.

The report that both Mr. Bell and ex-Senator Dill have large property interests in the Grand Coulee region has not been denied. Nor does Mr. Bell"s record and his activity in irrigation and power projects contradict that his real interests are in land and water promotion plans, and not in the conservation of fish resources. In view of this, should he remain the guiding hand in the United States Bureau of Fisheries?

At the National Convention of the Izaak Walton League of America, held in Chicago April 16-18, 1936, I contended that a high dam like the Grand Coulee would put an end to the runs of spring Chinook salmon that were accustomed to spawn in the headwaters of the Columbia. Mr. Bell replied: "We are going to have the dam anyway, and it is the duty of conservationists to work out the best schemes we can after the dam is built." This is the old policy of locking the barn door after the horse is stolen. Migrating runs of salmon must reach the spawning beds and the fingerlings must return safely to the sea, or the species dies.

Several years ago the question was raised as to how the government could protect its salmon resources when the power interests could barricade an important salmon stream with high dams. The Commissioner of Fisheries was given the important power of demanding proper fishways or other requirements needed to protect the fish before the project could proceed. If a strong fish expert had been at the head of the Bureau of Fisheries, some objection would have been raised to the plans for the Grand Coulee. But when Senator Dill obtained the appointment of Mr. Bell, any obstacles that the Bureau might have had were removed.

At the Chicago meeting Mr. Bell was frank in stating that it would be impossible to get any salmon over the Grand Coulee Dam but that money had been allotted to build a salmon hatchery at the base to conserve these fish. "I am one who believes that the dam in the Columbia River is not going to affect the salmon," said Mr. Bell.

This statement shows that the present Commissioner either is not familiar with, or that he ignores the past experience of the Bureau of Fisheries in trying to conserve the migrating runs of salmon. When a female spring Chinook salmon starts her long migration from the sea to headwaters to spawn, her life centers on this one ambition. She reaches the goal or dies fighting in the attempt.

On the tributaries of the Sacramento River in California, at Baker Lake in Washington, and on the tributaries of the upper Columbia the Bureau of Fisheries in past years had hatcheries where large numbers of salmon eggs were taken. In all of these regions the salmon runs have been exterminated because of power and irrigation dams. These egg-taking stations have been abandoned by the government. The salmon hatchery at Grand Coulee will be just another gesture to lock the barn door after the horse is gone. The building of the hatchery will be publicized. Later when the spawning salmon have disappeared it will be quietly abandoned to serve as another tombstone. There will be no death notice to inform the people of the tragedy.

Some people may take the stand that no one should retard the natural development of the country, and that our salmon resources are not as important as the production of electricity. On the other hand, there are in the West many rivers that are not salmon streams, where power can be produced. Years ago the California-Oregon Power Company completed plans to erect a two hundred and fifty foot dam on the lower reaches of the Klamath River in northern California. The State Fish & Game Commission claimed this as one of the few remaining salmon streams and that it was worth more for fish conservation than for power. A bill was initiated to stop the building of the dam. The people of California supported it by a majority of nearly 200,000 votes. Saving the Klamath salmon has not in any way stopped the development of this part of the country, since all the power that is now needed is produced.

Promoters are pushing plans to build more dams on the Columbia and to turn this big stream into a system of lakes to aid inland waterway transportation. This will change the whole biological character of the river and put an end to the salmon industry, which is worth $200,000,000, since it brings an annual $10,000,000 to the people. The question arises as to how long Mr. Bell can favor the building of high dams and at the same time head the United States Bureau of Fisheries established to conserve our fish resources. It is too much of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde role. It seems to us that Mr. Bell is selling our salmon down the river.

William L. Finley
70 Years Ago: Are Salmon Now Sold Down the River?
Nature Magazine, August 1936

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