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History provides pertinent lesson on how not to protect salmon

March 13th, 2015 | Carey Restino Print this article   Email this article  

While many might think the issue of protecting salmon populations is a relatively modern problem, the research of author and geologist David Montgomery says otherwise.

In fact, early salmon protections were written as follows:

"No one shall obstruct a salmon stream so that a well-fed, 3-year-old pig cannot stand sideways in it."

So said laws from more than 1,000 years ago in England.

At a recent presentation as the keynote speaker of the Kachemak Bay Science Conference, Montgomery said the lessons from history may provide rich food for thought in Alaska, home of the last remaining healthy salmon populations in the world.

Montgomery wove the tale, also told in his book, "King of Fish," of fish populations that lived healthily for more than a million years around the world before they came in contact with civilization and industrialization. Then, all the kings horses and all the kings men could not keep salmon runs healthy. Not even with legislation clearly defining the amount of blockage allowed in a stream with the dimensions of pigs.

"What this tells us today is they knew fully well that if you block the river in a way that prevented juvenile fish from making it to the ocean, or the adults from making it back from the ocean, if you didn't let them complete their life cycle, you would lose the resource that was feeding the people at that time," Montgomery said.

The history lesson of Europe's salmon continued into the hydro age — the age when people began to realize they could harness the power of a river using a dam — as laws forbade the complete blockage of rivers with dams back in 1318. Fast forward several hundred years, and King George passed regional legislation in 1714 trying to repair the damage to 17 rivers in England.

"Recall that it had been illegal for about 500 years to block a river in any way that prevents salmon from going up and down," noted Montgomery.

Unfortunately, with every administration, all development built prior got grandfathered in. In 1720, the industrial revolution began and the importance of hydro power grew even more.

By 1868 all 17 of the streams previously trying to be protected were poisoned by pollution or blocked.

"This is essentially the story of what happened to English salmon," Montgomery said.

Despite advances in science and technology, not to mention what most would consider more stringent environmental standards as the centuries went by, a similar story played out in New England with Atlantic salmon and more recently in the Pacific Northwest.

Early documentation showed that when people first came to New England, they found the noise created by the salmon slapping around in the streams as annoying as pigeons cooing. Ironically, these complaints were documented by cod fishermen anchored near the salmon streams for the night. But salmon habitat was systematically dismantled, and soon enough, the New England salmon runs were devastated.

On the Pacific Northwest, where Montgomery lives and teaches, the history is even more recent. Due in large part to the dams put in place as well as logging and the removal of critical salmon habitat like tree snags, salmon began to suffer as scientists watched on.

Montgomery made a case that in some regions, while the main streams were protected from development, the small streams that only appeared historically during a flood event were developed. Those streams, he said, provided critical habitat for the salmon, offering calm waters during times when the main river channel could be deadly to small salmon. Add to that the increased runoff from developed areas with more roofs and paved surfaces, and floods did their damage.

Montgomery noted that history showed that managing salmon might depend less on the science then it did on the management of people. Without buy-in

While Montgomery noted that the room was full of scientists who might beg to differ, he said the secret to successful fishery management may be impossible without the buy-in of the population, and the desire to regulate salmon protections not on a project-by-project basis but with the thought of protecting salmon 100 years from now in mind.

"The key to management of a fishery doesn't so much lie in new science, more science or even getting the science right, dare I say that," he said. "It lies as much in the management of people, in our desires, our social infrastructure, the way we implement regulations or not."

Social desires, he said, can influence policy so that all the good science and sound management practices can be traded away in a very short time period, historically speaking.

In a post-presentation conversation following the showing of a film on the proposed Chuitna Coal Project on the west side of Cook Inlet, Montgomery was asked what he thought people could do to influence the decision-making process in Alaska. In his experience, he said, speaking up as loudly as possible can impact public policy.

"I would encourage you to think about the history, and what you would like to see here," he said. "I would like to see 50 or 100 years from now people are able to look back and say, 'Alaska's where we finally got salmon management right.' You've got the opportunity to do that here."


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