Sorting through our salmon mystery

Sorting through our salmon mystery

By Tim Harmon
May 02, 2008


As the owner of one of the oldest charter companies on the West Coast, I’ve been asked many times lately about where all the salmon have gone this year. Good question.

My charter service has the most experienced captains on the coast, with collectively more than 180 years of experience in observing and studying the ocean while taking folks out salmon fishing. In addition, we’ve had state biologists on site at our facility every fishing day for the last 20 years, and they count, dissect, study and electronically monitor every fish that comes off our boats. We also take out federal biologists every week during fishing season, and they count, study and record.

So with all of this observing, counting, dissecting, studying, recording and monitoring, why is it such a mystery that there are no salmon this year? Most of the charter captains know. Most of the fishermen know. Most of the front-line biologists know. In a word: politics.

Salmon are the most politically immersed fish alive.

If we were to believe the latest news and explanations regarding salmon on the Oregon coast, it would lead us to believe that the heart of the problem is in the Sacramento Valley in California — that all of the farming, pollution, dams and such in the Sacramento Valley are the cause of those salmon not swimming the 1,000 miles they go to get back to Oregon’s coast. But in more than 20 years of biologists studying all the fish on our docks in Depoe Bay, not once have they found a tagged salmon from the Sacramento River system.

Seems like a stretch that’s the answer to the mystery. So what might be a more logical explanation?

A few years ago, we had the highest recorded salmon count on the coast in more than 25 years. Check it out, it’s well documented: the highest salmon count notwithstanding all of the river pollution, dams, ocean pollution, commercial fishing, mining, logging, stream deprivation, farming and global warming affecting the environment. That same year, the federal government, at the highest levels, starved salmon of water in the Klamath River Basin, and tens of thousands of salmon died. You likely remember the news pictures: bank-to-bank dead salmon in the Klamath River. What was not well explained or understood is that they were spawning fish going upriver to lay eggs to produce the hundreds of thousands of baby salmon that make their way back to the ocean. The Klamath River Basin, of course, is only a few hundred miles from the Oregon coast.

A more logical answer to the mystery?

The politics of that decision in the Klamath Basin climbed to the highest levels of the administration and to high levels of state governments. Special interests won, and the lobbyless salmon lost.

Don’t get me wrong: River, stream and ocean pollution, global warming and all of the other myriad calamities that humans are imposing on the Earth are affecting wild populations of many species, including salmon. But many of the agencies, fishermen, conservationists and local governments were doing a pretty good job on the uphill battle of salmon recovery until that fateful political decision a few years ago.

If blame is what you need for the catastrophe, at least put it where it belongs.

Tim Harmon of Lake Oswego is president of Tradewinds Charters in Depoe Bay, established in 1938.

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