Maintain Biodiversity

From the Foundation's 1998 Annual Report

Salmon run deep in the cultures of the Pacific Northwest. Along with other rich marine and coastal resources, salmon bounty has provided prosperity to the peoples of this region since humankind's first arrival in the Western Hemisphere. Countless generations of Haida, Haisla, Bella Bella, Heiltsuk and other First Nations' raised families, built longhouses and celebrated with potlatches in cultures centered around salmon. Explorer Meriwether Lewis wrote of salmon riches as he and George Clark canoed downstream along the Columbia River. Only a century ago, fishermen became millionaires in the coastal city of Astoria, Oregon, pulling enormous harvests of salmon from the mouth of the Columbia. Through the 1970s, fleets of trollers pursued salmon along the California, Oregon and Washington coasts, supporting a classically American way of life.

And then, the salmon all but vanished. Salmon runs that had numbered in the millions were reduced to thousands then hundreds, then tens, or have gone extinct. Fishing fleets declined with salmon no longer snapping at troll lines. Deprived of the mainstay of their economy, coastal towns languished. Fishing families held on, then changed their livelihoods, or left.

At last this biological calamity has come to the stage of public debate. State, national and international deliberations thrash endlessly over how best to restore different salmon runs. Interest groups clash, each blaming another, each hoping to dodge the economic bullets that will come with serious efforts at salmon restoration.

As the calamity has deepened, scientific research has added modest understanding to the forces driving salmon decline and has opened new, far reaching questions about the long-term consequences. What is clear about the decline is that there is neither a single cause nor a single cure. Over-fishing, destructive logging along breeding streams, and dams obstructing migration have all had an impact. New evidence the contamination in rivers may interfere with the salmon smolts' ability to switch from fresh water to salt and back again, disrupting their migrations. To restore salmon, we must address all these challenges.

As to the human consequences of the decline of salmon, new research indicates that salmon may be even more central to the ecosystems of the Northwest than heretofore understoodd. Salmon are the renewing nutrient source that help the magnificent forests of the Pacific Northwest retain their cathedral-like stature.

These forests have traditionally been the mainstay of the Northwest economy. They remain so - not so much because of the direct revenue produced by timber, whose economic role has been eroded by massive industrial logging - but because the forests , along with salmon, underpin an ethos and an environment of clean air and clean water which has brought talented people and new businesses and new jobs to the Northwest.

What of salmon? Why are they central? Hundreds of millions of salmon moving upriver carry millions of tons of biomass and nutrients from the ocean to the headwaters. Ecosystems throughout the region benefit from this nutrient transport system, which culminates when grizzly bears consume the salmon and deposit wastes in the surrounding watershed. Salmon become the forest. Forests nuture salmon. It is the quintessential example of interdependance.

A comparable fishery in the Amazon basin teeters towards a similar fate as unsustainable practices expand in that region. Fish provide over 50% of the protein consumed by people within this vast watershed, hence human fate is intricately linked to ecosystem health. Many of the fish are highly migratory, travelling enormous distances from breeding areas in the headwaters all the way to the river's estuarine exit to the Atlantic. The fish will not survive if weak links in that migration chain are undermined by inappropriate development or overfishing. Yet development plans build in seeming ignorance of the very human costs of destroying the fishery that provides sustenance to people throught the Basin.

Dams in the headwaters along the eastern slope of the Andes threaten to break the chain irrevocably by preventing migrating fish from reaching their breeding sites. Gold-mining contaminates the food-chain with mercury, rendering fish consumption dangerous to human health. New science now suggests that mercury contamination erodes human resistance to malaria, the great scourge of tropical America. Logging along the rivers destroys breeding habitat and, for the many fish in this ecosystem that eat fruit, deprives the fish of their food. Grazing by cattle and water buffalo further degrade river-side habitat. Finally, dramatic growth in the intensity of fishing is pushing fish populations beyond the level at which harvest is sustainable for the long-term.

These two fisheries - salmon in the Pacific Northwest and the diverse species of the Amazon Basin - are vitally important to the people and the human culture of their regions. In a world in which human population growth and economic activity gnaw away with increasing speed at ecological processes, they attain even greater importance. They become icons of the fundamental links between human prosperity and ecosystem health.

Link to Sustainable World Grants

Return to Earth & W. Alton Jones Foundation