A World on the Hill
by Brendan McGarry
– The Capitol Hill Times –
How important are salmon to Northwest culture? Native American tribes have relied on them for generations, settlers reaped the benefits of massive salmon runs and commercial fishing operations have turned them into a common menu option. Salmon are frequently seen in art, they’re one of the foods tourists actively seek when visiting and they are a crucial part of our native ecosystems. The State of Washington, Salmon Recovery Funding Board and Puget Sound Partnership have put a number on the importance of salmon recently – more than $42 million for restoration and preservation of salmon habitat.
King County alone is getting a large chunk, $4,458,129, fourth in line behind Snohomish, Skagit, and Thurston counties. This money will be used to remove culverts and levees, design various restoration projects, and conserve existing habitat in King County. No doubt this is an important step to help restore much-depleted fisheries so future generations can take pride in these fish. However, none of the projects are even in Seattle. So, why do we care on Capitol Hill?
Hopefully, among you conscious, well read Seattleites the basics of salmon natural history are known, but let’s take an opportunity to be sure. King County is oblong-shaped, extending from a stretch of Puget Sound inland to the crest of the Cascades. Those borders relate to our salmon populations. While most salmon we eat are caught in salt water, they begin life as eggs resting in inland scrapes of freshwater creeks. As they hatch, they slowly go through a variety of physiological changes, eventually working their way to the Pacific Ocean. There, they spend a handful of years, (length dependent on the species), and return when reproductively mature, to lay eggs and spawn near where they started their lives.
Fish with this sort of life history – born in fresh, migrating to salt and returning to freshwater to breed – are called anadromous. After achieving this penultimate task of reproducing, adults die (and fertilize the land around them). Simple as that. Well, not quite.
Humans are highly manipulative of the landscape. We move rivers to stop flooding, build dams to harvest energy, or alter the makeup of a waterway simply for our own pleasure. Healthy salmon populations need to access their specific spawning sites, they need cover from the sun and predators along the way, and of course, they need clean water to thrive. Millions alone die of natural causes between hatching and finding the ocean and spending their adult years dodging hungry predators at sea before heading inland to push upstream, again avoiding predation, in a final battle. Our altered waterways (along with overfishing and a laundry list of other maladies) have deeply degraded their populations.
By 1999 salmon disappeared from 40 percent of historic breeding ranges in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. As of 2009, 23 distinct populations of Washington’s salmonid species were listed under the federal endangered species act. Despite the fact that the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks incorporated a fish ladder during construction in the early 1900s, recognizing the need of anadromous fish to migrate, it’s taken a long time for greater governmental acknowledgment of how impactful our fiddling can be. There’s little wonder since in the late 1800s salmon was a cheap, ubiquitous, seemingly never-ending food.
Of course we don’t think of salmon as cheap these days. It’s a special, relatively expensive food that most on the Hill buy at a grocery store or eat in a restaurant. We’re incredibly lucky to find fresh-caught salmon at local businesses. Dozens of restaurants, from sushi joints to favorites like the Kingfish Cafe and Coastal Kitchen, have salmon on the menu. This salmon may not always be locally sourced; it’s often from Alaska because their fisheries are comparatively more robust. For the locavore, Washington salmon should top the list along with other seafood and local produce (and can if you are willing to get out and fish yourself). With money invested, there’s a possibility we can rebuild local populations and further support the local economy.
The salmon that pass by Capitol Hill, through the Montlake cut or along the Duwamish River may not be the ones ending up on your dinner plate currently, but in the future, we might be able to sustainably fish these populations and be proud of a local tradition. I’d like to be able to tell my (future) children or grandchildren that the salmon they are eating was caught in Puget Sound by a sustainable fishing operation, not shipped from far away or raised on a farm. Looks like the State of Washington is trying to make that happen, by dually propping up our environment and people.