Just about every day for the last two years, I’ve walked my dog Lilly past the Port of Astoria’s East Mooring Basin as part of our “long route”, which goes from my house in Uppertown west, then down to the Astoria Riverwalk, through the mooring basin’s parking lot, past the Goonie house and up the road back to our house. It takes about an hour, and most of the year, the parking lot down by the sea lion docks is pretty much empty. But during sport fishing season – salmon season – the parking lot is usually full of trucks, boats, people and fish. Seems to me like a lot of trouble to catch a few hatchery fish, but the tradition is long and deep, and in many ways, defines the culture of the people who live (and have lived) in the lower Columbia region.
It’s probably not too much of a stretch to say that we revere salmon in these parts. Not in the same sense as the Native American population, but salmon certainly are given preference over their non-human predators, and their preservation as a species is codified in many of our laws. Salmon enter the conversation in politics, small talk, weather, food, and even etymology. For instance, my wife Nancy and I have a tradition of eating brunch at Street 14 Coffee in Astoria every Sunday. And not just any brunch, but for me, it’s always the bagel & lox plate, substituting red pepper for tomato. The lox is straight from Josephson’s, just down the street.
Now there’s quite the running argument from people like me – a New York Jew – who say we prefer “lox” to “smoked salmon.” I always thought the two were similar, but differentiated by the origin of the fish – lox coming from Atlantic salmon, and smoked salmon coming from the Pacific branch of the species. But it turns out that lox – from the German word for salmon, lachs – is the term for salmon that has been salt-cured only. By contrast, smoked salmon is, well, smoked, as well as salt-cured. Though most of the cured salmon around here is smoked, the restaurants invariably sell it as lox. However we slice it, I’m just glad I get to eat it almost every week.
While the last couple of sport fishing seasons here have been pretty good, overall salmon health has been declining for some time. Several sub-species of salmon were declared endangered decades ago under the Endangered Species Act, and recovery plans are required to bring populations to higher numbers.
Many factors have combined to cause a decrease in wild salmon populations in the lower Columbia region, and across the world. Right now, we are into what scientists say is one of the strongest El Niño events of the last 50 years. El Niño is the term given to weather conditions that are caused by a warmer-than-normal band of water around the equator in the Pacific Ocean, which limits upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich, deep water. The Columbia River has had warmer than normal temperatures in the estuary this summer – not good for salmon. The trend is supposed to persist for at least another year.
To make matters worse, there is a warm patch of water out in the Pacific west of here, affectionately called The Blob, that has contributed to our warm and dry weather here for over a year. There is no end in sight, and the consequences for salmon are additional ocean and river warming. Scientists don’t yet know what has caused The Blob, or when it might dissipate.
And if that wasn’t enough, one of the largest “red tides” or algal blooms ever now extends off the west coast of the U.S. from California to Alaska. It is affecting salmon and other marine creatures (including salmon prey) by producing biotoxins and robbing ocean waters of oxygen as the bloom dies off and decays.
Also add in the cumulative effect of dam operations on the Columbia for the last hundred years (reduced flows and warmer water). Don’t forget ocean acidification caused by increased absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (which seems to cause developmental problems in all marine life). Top it off with the effects of development here in the Columbia estuary as well as inland.
All of these factors are major contributors to the declines, yet local fisherman and politicians seem to place the bulk of responsibility on two predator species – California sea lions and cormorants. For years now, especially in the last year, the Port of Astoria has tried to remove sea lions from the East Mooring Basin docks, even while the “sea dogs” (as the Sea Lion Defense Brigade’s Ninette Jones calls them) have attracted thousands of tourists, and many locals. I’ll admit I love the sea lions. Their barking helps me to sleep, and I miss them when they go off hunting for mates in the summer. But many local fishermen see the marine mammals as competition for a declining catch of salmon, and want them gone, dead, or both. They are branded by local and state agencies, hazed off the docks and harassed constantly by Port staff. Some have been shot.
But at least the sea lions haven’t (yet) been given their “final solution,”as the Army Corps of Engineers has handed out to the other species blamed for salmon decline – double-crested cormorants. Specifically scapegoated are the cormorants of Sand Island, a man-made island of dredge spoils here in the Columbia River estuary. Yes, the colony there was sentenced to death – at least half of them were – for their survival technique of eating baby salmon. Not protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the birds are being shot, hazed and having their eggs removed. All this is part of the plan to help salmon recover, as required under the Endangered Species Act.
There’s got to be a better way.
People here on the coast have been fishing for centuries, and recently there have been many arguments over those fish that remain. To me, it’s amazing that we have actual ballot measures, like the recent Measure 81, and heated arguments in letters to the editor from fishermen over who should get access to salmon, what equipment you can use to catch them, how many you can catch, when you can catch them, how much you have to pay for the privilege of trying to kill and sell (or eat) them, whether hatchery fish are inferior or superior to wild, whether we should continue farming fish, even whether they should be genetically modified. I guess that’s what happens when something you always thought would be here forever is threatened.
Soon after arriving in Astoria from Seattle, my son Tevan won a raffle at a performance of the Astor Street Opry Company’s Shanghied in Astoria (then at the Finnish Meat Market). The prize was a bunch of fishing gear and a chance to catch salmon with local fisherman Dennis Warren. I went with Tevan on the trip, and we had the good fortune of landing a 15-pound coho, which our neighbor Tim cooked over alder planks, and it was delicious.
I hope we humans can give the salmon enough space to beat the odds themselves. That’s the bottom line if we expect them to continue to grace the waters of the lower Columbia region for my lifetime, Tevan’s, and all the generations after. In the big scheme of things, we need to leave more of their habitat alone. There should be enough room not only for salmon, but all their prey and all their predators, including us.
Stay safe out there, and good luck fishing!