Ghost Story

Jim Lichatowich
182 Dory Road, Sequim, WA  98382
Copyright retained by Jim Lichatowich

May 19, 200

Throughout the coastal areas of the Pacific Northwest, scattered along riverbanks and in bays and estuaries stand reminders of the great salmon industry. Log pilings that once supported busy canneries are silent testaments to the rivers that were once teeming with salmon. In the early days of my career, one of my first jobs was to convert an old cannery building into a laboratory for research on marine fishes. The old building sat on dark pilings over the waters of Sequim Bay, Washington. It was very old with a sagging roof and the way it moaned and creaked in the wind gave me the feeling it was approaching its end. Then one night, shortly after the lab conversion was complete, the old wood ignited and flames consumed the whole building÷only the pilings remained. Since the fire, I always take notice of other skeletons from the heyday of the canning industry. Sometimes, these old forgotten places are more than just rotting log pilings, more than just the echoes of a forgotten past÷they are the home of ghosts÷ghosts of the salmon and ghosts of the salmon people.

The ghosts are still comfortable in towns like Astoria. Other old-time salmon towns like Seattle, Anacortes, The Dalles, and Bellingham also have their ghosts, but their presence is harder to detect. They have largely moved on and away from their salmon roots. Reminders of the salmon are lost among factories that make airplanes or paper or refine oil into gasoline.

Astoria still clings to the rugged hills at the mouth of the Columbia River. Its streets and docks are no longer crowded with fishermen, Chinese salmon butchers and the rotting piles of spoiled fish, but the city is full of reminders of the industry that once thrived there and the great runs of salmon that supported it. Wandering down Marine Drive under the Astoria Bridge, I stop in front of Soummi Hall, of the Finnish Brotherhood. The dates chiseled over the door are ă1893 to 1947ä÷the good salmon years. Standing in front of the hall in the evening, I can imagine the angry shouts of gillnetters arguing over the price of salmon and cursing the cannery owners. They are anxious to finish their meeting and get out on the river. It was in the evening that the fishermen took their butterfly fleet into the nightâs fishery. There are many places here that remind me of the townâs salmon roots. Across the street from the Soummi Hall the old Finish meat market still stands.

The houses that salmon built still retain their 1890s character, but now they offer bed and breakfast to tourists from Portland and Seattle instead of room and board to lonely men from Helsinki, Bergen and Karlskrona. Walking the steep streets among the old Victorian houses I imagine the laughter of the boom years, and the cries of new widows who lost their husbands to the river. Astoria is crowded with ghosts and they are comfortable here.

Across the river from Astoria, part of the Columbia takes a sharp swing to the north into shallow Baker Bay. One evening during a low tide, I watched the sea ebb from the bay. It was slipping away under a thin mist that lay lightly on the darkening water. Slowly, hundreds of worn and rotted pilings appeared to rise from the bay÷silent reminders of a wild and dangerous past. I came here to see these ghosts, reminders of the trap fishery of Baker Bay. As small waves lapped at the pilings I imagined this place 100 years ago with heavy, tar-soaked netting hanging from frames attached to the pilings. I tried to picture in my mind the wild splashing of thousands of chinook salmon÷60 to 70 pound ăJune hogs,ä÷and the shouts of men trying to manhandle the wild thrashing fish from the traps to the flat bottomed scows that would take them to the canneries.

As darkness settled over Baker Bay, the lights of Astoria were visible across the river. I remembered reading about dark, moonless nights when the gillnetters from Astoria would slip across the river to their competitors, the trapmen of Baker Bay. Angry shouts and even gun shots echoed across the water in the darkness. Then the gillnetters would row back across the river, silhouetted in the light of burning traps. The trapmen are gone, the gillnetters and the salmon are nearly gone. In coastal towns, their ghosts are remembered in waterfront boutiques selling memorabilia of a time that will never return. All that is left of the great salmon runs and the lives of men who fished for them are paintings, plates, coffee cups and t-shirts, poor substitutes for one of the earthâs greatest living resources and for the menâs lives who depended on it.

            Much of what we associate with the heyday of the salmon industry is gone and it will never return: the big canneries in every bay, traps, fishwheels, and large fleets of gillnetters or trollers. They are now ghosts, reminding us of something we had, mismanaged and lost. While the loss of a way of life, the dissolution of communities and the degradation of a significant part of our cultural heritage may provide a moral imperative, a reason for trying to restore the salmon, they offer little advice as to how that recovery can be achieved.

The salmon do have important advice to offer, if only we will seek it out. The first step is to recognize that they are far more experienced at the work of restoration than we are. In fact, the salmon have been restoring themselves for over 15 million years. It is only our arrogance and the deep-seated belief in human separation and control over nature that leads us to believe we can restore the salmon without being attentive to the lessons these magnificent fish can offer. Our failure to pay attention to the salmon and to learn from them has led us to hatcheries and smolt barges as a substitute for healthy rivers. It has led us to conclude that the amount of money spent is the most important measures of progress towards salmon restoration. It has led us to ignore the important lessons the salmon have to teach us. And the richest source of those lessons can be found among the ghosts of salmon.   

            Salmon ghosts are found in unlikely places÷in the dry stream beds below irrigation diversions, in rivers blocked by impassable dams, under tons of silt and mud below logged hillsides, under the quiet, warm waters of reservoirs or in the hot water of streams stripped of their riparian vegetation. They may be under the pavement of the local shopping center. City dwellers are often unaware that many old salmon streams are imprisoned in culverts and buried under the asphalt and concrete they drive on every day. Salmon ghosts are found in places with names like the John Day, Umatilla, Klamath, Yakima, Tillamook, Weiser, Owhyee, Dungeness, Pysht, Alsea, and Jimmy-Come-Lately.

            What restoration lessons do the salmon ghosts have to offer? To unlock their secrets we have to go back to some basic relationships among the landscape, rivers, climate and salmon. The landscape of the Pacific Northwest is incredibly diverse, including mountains, deserts, flat valleys, coastal foothills, scablands, and old lava flows. Rivers of all sizes wind their way through this complex mosaic. The rivers, through their natural, seasonal flow patterns are continuously rearranging their channels, rebuilding and maintaining the basic structure of salmon habitat. The interaction between the land and water produce a diverse array of habitats reaching from the lowlands to headwaters in a continuum of connected places where salmon can live. Superimposed over this is a patchwork of climates÷coastal, inland, rainshadows on the eastern sides of mountains and wet areas on the western slopes. Within this crazy quilt are thousands of microhabitats, each with its own challenges to the salmonâs survival. How the salmon have collectively met those challenges are at the heart of the lessons they have to offer us regarding their restoration.

            Viewed from the salmonâs perspective, this patchwork of habitats is a riverscape of salmon friendly areas where survival is high and other areas where survival is low. The survival peaks and troughs of the riverscape are always changing. They are more akin to the ever-changing peaks and troughs of the sea than our conventional vision of nature as machinelike consistency and uniformity. For example, eggs of chinook salmon buried in the clean gravel of a headwater stream may exhibit higher survival than eggs deposited in silt laden gravels of the lower river. Later in the year juvenile chinook salmon in the lower river and estuary may exhibit higher growth and survival than the fish that remain in the cold headwater streams. On the other hand, in some years the lower river may be too warm for salmon to survive through the summer. Salmon respond to the survival peaks and troughs in the riverscape through life history÷the way the salmon lives in and uses the riverscape through all its life stages. Life history is the salmonâs solution to problems of survival in diverse and changing habitats. Life histories are the pathways through the riverscape. Within each population, the salmon follow several pathways through the survival peaks and troughs of the riverscape.

            In undisturbed rivers each salmon population is composed of a bundle of several life histories, several alternative survival strategies. Unlike the hatchery environment with its feedlot regime, in a natural salmon population, in a healthy river, all the salmon are not doing the same thing in the same place at the same time. They are following different life history pathways through the time and space dimensions of their habitat. As the riverscape changes due to natural disturbance (fires, floods, drought, etc.) some of the life histories in the bundle are in survival peaks while others drop into troughs. This diverse array of life histories prevents the population from putting ăall its eggs in one survival basket,ä so to speak. Even though the habitat was changing in response to natural disturbance regimes and climate fluctuations, the salmonâs multiple survival strategies allowed them to remain productive and a reliable base for the Indianâs economy prior to the arrival of Euro-americans; an economy and production system that sustained itself for several thousand years.

            All of that began to change about 140 years ago. By now we are all familiar with how overharvest, irrigation, mining, logging, grazing, urban, and  industrial development contributed to the impoverishment of the salmon. But if that is all you know, then you know only part of the story, and it is the least interesting and useful part. And that brings us back to the ghosts and the important lessons they have to offer for the salmonâs recovery.

            Before white settlers began rearranging the rivers of the Northwest, salmon life histories evolved into a complex web of pathways through the Northwestâs diverse riverscapes. One by one those pathways became death traps for fish trying to follow them. Irrigation dried up the lower reaches of rivers cutting off salmon migration through the summer months. Grazing eliminated riparian vegetation raising stream temperatures reducing stream-rearing areas. Logging destroyed the natural habitat structure of forested streams. Hatcheries stripped away diversity while molding the salmon to a uniform sameness that fit their factory-like operations. Dams eliminated spawning and rearing areas and migration corridors. Today, in many rivers of the Northwest, salmon spawning and juvenile rearing are confined to small areas in the headwaters of the rivers. Migration is restricted to a narrow window in spring. Life history diversity, the complex array of pathways through the riverscape has been eliminated.

            The loss of life history diversity is a direct by-product of our pursuit of the vision of simplified, controlled and ăimprovedä rivers and salmon populations. In some rivers like the Columbia, we have largely achieved that vision. The river has been brought under the control of engineers. The seasonal flow patterns have been rearranged, and the free flowing channel has been converted to a series of placid reservoirs. The salmon are also largely under human control. At least 80 percent of the salmon in the Columbia River are produced in hatcheries. Even the few wild salmon left depend on humans to carry them downstream in barges. We have achieved our vision of control and simplification but is has come at a terribly high price. I am continuously amazed at the salmon managers who point to the program that brought their vision to fruition÷the hatcheries and the barges, for example÷and make their claims of success. They conveniently ignore the fact that their expensive programs are only maintaining five percent of the salmon runs that once returned to the river÷without the help of man.

            Today the riverscapes in the Northwest are littered with salmon ghosts÷ghosts of salmon that once made their way through the riverscape using pathways that no longer exist. River development did not just reduce numbers of salmon, it blocked and eliminated the unique life-history pathways the salmon followed through the freshwater environments. In fact, the most productive pathways, those that allowed the salmon to rear in the productive, low elevation reaches of rivers have largely been eliminated.

            Most of our restoration efforts focus on the existing life histories. They try to force more salmon through the few remaining pathways rather than open up the old extinct ones. In some rivers those remaining life histories, largely restrict spawning and rearing to headwater areas, and those stream reaches, because of their cold waters, were never highly productive. It is futile to try to achieve salmon restoration by increasing numbers of salmon without a corresponding increase in the life-history pathways. And we cannot recover life history diversity with out recovering complex, natural rivers systems.

            Today fisheries management produces giant schools of domesticated salmon that all try to migrate to sea or return to spawn at the same time. These herds of ignorant salmon released from hatcheries are the product of our vision of a simple and controlled river and ecosystem. They are a manifestation of our attempt to bend the salmon to our worldview.

            If we are to have any hope of restoring the salmon to sustainable levels of abundance we will have to begin by paying more attention to the salmonâs world. Not as it exists today, but the salmonâs world as it existed before we simplified, controlled and ăimprovedä it. Although some of the damage done to rivers cannot be changed, much can be undone. For example, unnecessary dams can be removed or breached. Riparian zones can be protected from grazing with fences. We can stop subsidizing irrigated farms in the western deserts to raise surplus crops that the government pays other farmers not to produce. Most important we can let the rivers heal themselves. We can allow the natural riverine processes to rebuild the natural physical structure of rivers through which salmon will reconstruct their web of life histories.

            One other change in our approach to salmon restoration is imperative. Recovery of salmon based on the restoration of diverse life-history pathways requires a holistic view. Itâs important to move away from the current myopic approach to restoration that only deals with small slices of the salmonâs life history. Restoring only a part of an extinct life history pathway is as useful as building a chain with several links missing throughout its length. The approach to salmon restoration has to broaden from the single riffle or pool or stream reach to the restoration of entire watersheds and entire life history pathways through the riverscape. That is the only way to bring back the ghosts and that is the only way to bring back the salmon.

About the author:

Jim Lichatowich is a fisheries scientist who has worked for 30 years in salmon research and management in the Pacific Northwest. His book, ăSalmon without Rivers: A History of the Pacific Salmon Crisis,ä is available from the publisher Island Press or or through local book stores.

Copy Right by Jim Lichatowich.