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Excerpt from Endgame

The Gift of Salmon (p. 605)

From chapter "Pretend You Are a River"

When I talk about taking out dams, I’m not “just” talking about liberating rivers, and I’m not “just” talking about saving salmon. I’m talking about forests and meadows and aquifers and everyone else whose home this was long before the arrival of civilization. I’m talking about those whose home this is. You cannot separate rivers from forests from meadows, and it’s foolish to think you can. If you kill rivers, you kill forests and meadows and everyone else. The same holds true for all parts of these relationships, in all directions.

I’ve long known that salmon feed forests, but I did not know how dependent forests are on these fish until I read a luminous essay called The Gift of Salmon by Kathleen Dean Moore and her son Jonathan. The essay begins with part of a letter Jonathan wrote to his mother from Alaska, where salmon have not yet been destroyed by civilization: “The creek is so full of sockeye, it’s a challenge just to walk upstream. I stumble and skid on dead salmon washed up on the gravel bars. It’s like stepping on human legs. When I accidentally trip over a carcass, it moans, releasing trapped gas. In shallow water, fish slam into my boots. Spawned-out salmon, moldy and dying, drift down the current and nudge against my ankles. Glaucous-winged gulls swarm and scream upstream, a sign the grizzlies are fishing. The creek stinks of death.”

The next summer, Kathleen went to visit the spot, now clean of salmon, and asked, “Where did the piles of dead salmon he witnessed go? What difference does their living and dying make to the health of the entire ecosystem?”

As you know, salmon provide a tremendous influx of nutrients into the forest. They put on about 95 percent of their weight in the ocean, and carry this weight into the forest and die. Prior to the arrival of civilization—and dams— the amount of nutrients that flowed into forests this way was nearly unimaginable. Salmon, steelhead, shad, herring, striped bass, lamprey, eels, and many other fish ran the rivers to bring their bodies home. Researchers estimate that about five hundred million pounds of salmon (not including steelhead, lampreys, and so on) swam up the rivers of the Pacific Northwest (with some streams averaging more than three salmon per square yard over the whole stream). That’s hundreds of thousands of pounds of nitrogen and phosphorous each year.

When the salmon come in, it’s time for a feast. Bears eat salmon. Eagles eat salmon. Gulls eat what the bears and eagles leave behind. Maggots eat what the gulls leave behind. Spiders eat the maggots-turned-flies. Caddisflies eat dead salmon. Baby salmon eat living caddisflies. In the Pacific Northwest, sixty-six different vertebrates eat salmon. That includes salmon themselves: up to 78 percent of the stomach contents of young coho and steelhead consist of salmon carcasses and eggs. Between 33 and 90 percent of the nitrogen in grizzly bears comes from salmon, or at least it did when there were salmon for them to eat. This was true as far inland as Idaho. As go the salmon, so go the bears. Phosphorous from pink salmon makes its way into mountain goats. Trees next to streams filled with salmon grow three times faster than those next to otherwise identical streams. Three times. David Montgomery, in King of Fish, writes, “For Sitka spruce along streams in southeast Alaska this shortens the time needed to grow a tree big enough to create a pool, should it fall into the stream, from over three hundred years to less than a century. Salmon fertilize not only their streams but the huge trees that create salmon habitat when they fall into the water.”

As go salmon, so go lakes. Kathleen Dean Moore notes that “the cycles of salmon are mirrored by the growth of plankton, the foundation of the food chain that nourishes life in a lake. The more salmon, the more zooplankton, and the more algae flourish in the lake. . . . [Studies] show the precipitous drop in plankton levels and lake productivity that mark the start of large-scale fishing in the late 1800s. Over the last 100 years, fishing has diverted up to two-thirds of the annual upstream movement of salmon-derived nutrients from the local ecosystem to human beings.”Add in dams, industrial forestry, and the other ways the civilized torment and destroy salmon, and rivers in the Northwest starve: they only receive about 6 percent of the nutrients they did a century ago.

The forests need salmon. We need salmon. And salmon need us. As Bill Frank Jr., Chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission stated, “If the salmon could speak, he would ask us to help him survive. This is something we must tackle together.”

I think they are speaking, if only we would listen. Here is what Jonathan Moore wrote to his mother: “I have seen sockeye salmon swimming upstream to spawn even with their eyes pecked out. Even as they are dying, as their flesh is falling away from their spines, I have seen salmon fighting to protect their nests. I have seen them push up creeks so small that they rammed themselves across the gravel. I have seen them swim upstream with huge chunks bitten out of their bodies by bears. Salmon are incredibly driven to spawn. They will not give up.”

They are speaking. We must listen.