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Salmon Can't Live on Shallow Symbolism

by Editorial Board
The Daily Astorian, January 10, 2008

Their struggle is a warning of what's coming for the human population

A little-recognized but important form of pollution in the Columbia River and its tributaries is heat.

We humans may prefer a nice, warm swimming hole, but salmon do best in cold water. Temperatures unhealthy for migrating fish have long been a problem in summer in the slack water behind dams, requiring expensive fixes.

As well described Sunday in The Oregonian, a temperature increase of 0.2 to 1 degree per decade in the next 100 years is likely to be as deadly to some fragile salmon and steelhead runs as poaching them in the oven. In just 30 or 40 years, the University of Washington's Climate Impacts Group believes one-fifth of Pacific Northwest rivers - including a lot of the Columbia and Snake river system's main stem - will be hot enough in the summer to kill salmon.

At the same time, changing precipitation patterns are likely to result in less water for migrating salmon and too much water when eggs need to stay in place in the gravelly bottoms of streams. Eggs will hatch too early, throwing them out of sync with food sources. It appears that pretty much everything that can go wrong for salmon, will go wrong.

Already-compromised species well-adapted to the climate spectrum that has prevailed since the last ice age will suddenly be assaulted with massive change.

Reflecting dire discussions that have been taking place among salmon experts for the past five years - pragmatic worries that previously centered around the loss of habitat to various forms of development - some look at this climate data and figure we will be forced to engage in a kind of disaster-scale triage. In other words, we will be forced to allow some salmon runs to go extinct in order to focus on those with better chances.

It may come to that, but if so, those are decisions that will haunt us. We have to insure that all species are given the best possible chance to overcome the approaching hard times, unhandicapped by detrimental management choices of the sort made in recent years. A series of federal salmon recovery plans have seemed like token efforts. Salmon can no longer afford shallow symbolism.

Still, they are surprisingly tough, which is a large part of their fascination and appeal to many generations of fishermen and people in general. Salmon are among nature's greatest athletes, an inspiration to all. If we give them a fighting chance by, for example, managing rivers to provide essential in-stream flows at critical times of the year, just maybe they will be able to adapt to the new climate we're creating.

Like dying canaries in a coal mine, salmon are telling us that great danger lies ahead. We, too, will have to learn how to live with the climate we have created.

Editorial Board
Salmon Can't Live on Shallow Symbolism
The Daily Astorian, January 10, 2008

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