Pacific Salmon and Heat, along with Beavers, Bears — and Nitrogen

Naked Capitalism is strong on birds, strong on cats (both big and domestic), and occasionally strays into dog frens, but we’re not so strong on fish (see here, here, here, and here). So as I perambulated through the biosphere and encountered salmon, I feel a llittle out of my depth. Here is a salmon:

The term “fish” “describes a life-form rather than a taxonomic group.” It’s the same with trees. Is there some sort of crisis in taxonomy? Apparently. Britannica: “[F]ish share certain features with other vertebrates. These features are gill slits at some point in the life cycle, a notochord, or skeletal supporting rod, a dorsal hollow nerve cord, and a tail.” But Wikipedia: “Fish are aquatic, craniate, gill-bearing animals that lack limbs with digits.” No tail. On the the other hand, WikiPedia got the “fish live in the water” part right. And I love “lack limbs with digits” because that implies they can lack limbs altogether. Here is an anatomical diagram of a fish.

There are over 34,000 species of fish (that we know of; as of this date), which compares favorably to the number of mammals (6,399 extant). Salmon are successful fish if global distribution is the metric. Here is a horrid map of the range of all salmon[1]:

As a sidebar: Horrid the map is, with no global view of species, no hint of spawning grounds, no diagrams of life cycles… I spent a good deal of time looking for a better map, but never did find one; all the maps were siloed by ocean, or watershed, or species, or jurisdiction; this, I think, says something about the institutional problems with the NGOs that fund the environmental “movement.” End sidebar.

In any case, I intend to drastically limit the scope of this post. I will not cover salmon farms, or salmon farms as a disease source. I will certainly not cover how to cook salmon, the health benefits of salmon, or salmon in the culture of the tribes (see also the APPENDIX). Here is a salmon FAQ that covers many other topics. Instead, I will glance at salmon’s extraordinary life cycle, and then move on to the effects of this year’s intense summer heat on Pacific salmon[2] in the Sacramento River and the Pacific Northwest. Then I’ll look at two ecological systems that are so beautiful I can hardly stand it, involving two ecological engineers: beavers, and grizzly bears (!). I’ll conclude with some brief muttering on the notion of ecosystem services.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species describes the life cycle of salmon:

One of the most intriguing aspects of salmon is their extraordinary life cycle. Salmon eggs are laid in small pits (called ‘redds’) that are excavated in gravel-based freshwater streams by egg-bearing females. These nesting sites are selected because of their specific temperature, currents and oxygen levels.

Salmon eggs hatch after about three months, although juveniles remain dependent on the yolk-sac for several weeks after hatching. Eventually the juveniles begin their downstream migration during which time they develop a tolerance to saline waters. Young salmon may remain in fresh water for up to four years, before entering the ocean. It is during this period that juveniles are thought to be most vulnerable to predation.

Entry into the ocean coincides with planktonic blooms, upon which the juveniles feed. Older individuals may feed upon small invertebrates, squid and a diversity of marine fishes.

Depending on the species, salmon may spend between one and seven years at sea, where they continue to grow. Once sexually mature, the salmon migrate back to their original hatching grounds to reproduce. Such migrations (which can be extremely long) use a combination of chemical, magnetic and celestial cues for navigation. For most species this landward migration occurs throughout the summer and autumn months, with a few species, such as Chinook, coho and chum salmon, continuing to migrate through the winter months.

Salmons’ spawning migration is both risky and energetically costly. Salmon must travel continually against the current and overcome numerous threats and barriers including predators, disease and waterfalls [and dams]. As a result, many salmon die during the migration, and those that survive are often bruised and battered. Upon arrival at the nesting site a salmon will typically spawn several times before dying, although some species (notably Atlantic salmon) can survive and may even repeat spawn.

Left out from this already complicated description: “As salmon prepare to head out to the ocean, where they will spend from six months to seven years (again, depending on the species), their skin turns silver, they become more sleek for better swimming, and their cells change to allow them to breathe in salt water.”

Unfortunately, salmon have been increasingly endangered since European contact:

Salmon have a tumultuous history in the Pacific Northwest. They’ve survived earthquakes, exploding volcanoes, and drastic swings in temperature, largely thanks to a complex life history. The five houses of Pacific salmon—coho, chinook, chum, pink, and sockeye—cover a lot of real estate over their lives. The details differ, because every population evolved to flourish in a hyper-specific waterway, like the Robertson River. … Salmon cross barriers that other animals can’t, transforming physiologically as they move between fresh and salt water and back again on a mind-blowingly epic migration. Yet these evolutionary feats are not serving them well in the modern age. Since European contact, a third of the 1,400 distinct salmon populations along the west coast have gone extinct. Dams and development hinder migrations. Overfishing in the oceans and rivers cuts into population numbers, too. Now this resilient silver fish is facing a new, possibly insurmountable challenge. A warming climate is drying and disconnecting waterways they’ve traveled for millennia. As far as we know, a salmon has no evolutionary trick for surviving a dried puddle.

At least for salmon in California’s Sacramento River, that “dried puddle” may already have arrived:

California officials are warning nearly all juvenile chinook salmon in the Sacramento River could die due to abnormally hot underwater conditions as heat waves continue to bake the West.

As temperatures near and surpass triple digits, many reservoirs in California’s Central Valley have diverted more water to cities and farmers during the drought, making rivers shallower and too hot for the fish to develop from eggs, a process which can take at least 60 days to complete.

According to [California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW)] officials, water is more insulated when it is deep. However, since more water is heating up and evaporating, the salmon are losing their insulation blanket, which normally makes it colder at the bottom of the river. The eggs will die when the water temperature rises above 56 degrees, officials said, warning only a few thousand of winter-run Chinook are left.

“It’s an extreme set of cascading climate events pushing us into this crisis situation,” said CDFW spokesman Jordan Traverso.


Given that the salmon generally have a three-year life cycle, a near-total wipeout of one year’s run of juveniles “greatly increases the risk of extinction for the species,” said Doug Obegi, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council. The winter-run salmon endured two years of severe mortality during the last drought as well.

Salmon in the Columbia River basin also suffer from heat (and dams, unlike the Sacramento River salmon):

The Columbia River Basin was once the greatest salmon-producing river system in the world. But all remaining salmon on the Snake River, its largest tributary, now face extinction. Four dams in eastern Washington state — Ice Harbor, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Lower Granite — slow passage along the lower Snake River, a major migration corridor linking pristine cold-water streams in central Idaho to the Columbia River and out to the Pacific Ocean.

The dams plus rising water temperatures in the reservoirs make the passage increasingly deadly, conservation groups contend. Many are calling for the four dams to be breached.

In 2015, some of the earliest and hottest weather on record produced warm river temperatures that killed more than 90% of all adult sockeye salmon returning to the Columbia Basin, conservation groups said. State agencies have since had to limit or cancel fishing seasons to protect the dwindling population. This summer could be a disaster for Snake River salmon with its record-breaking heat, the groups said.

(As of today, there doesn’t seem to be much that can be done inside either river system, although water in existing reservoirs can be released to cool the rivers; and salmon can be trucked to new locations.)

From these two examples of anthropogenic global warming and its consequences, I’ll turn to two beautiful examples of ecosystem engineering. First, beavers and salmon (see NC on beavers here and here). From the Seattle Times:

Beavers are back. It’s not hard to tell.

The signs are everywhere: felled trees and branches, with telltale tooth marks. Soft sedge meadows dimpled with belly tracks from beavers hustling to and fro. And in thickets of young alder and willow — a 24/7 beaver cafe — multiple dams, built in a side channel of this reborn river.

The dams are subtle, just sticks pushed into a row, bank to bank, and a bit of mud. But the dams do the trick these genius eco-engineers are so good at, creating pools to ease their travels by swimming, rather than walking, to their favorite snack spot.

Created in the making of their dams, too, is a boost for salmon: These pools are perfect spots for juvenile salmon to rest and feed…. [D]ensities of young salmon were five times greater in the pools than areas of the estuary without them

The intertwined lives of beaver and salmon emerging here is one more sign that the ecosystem-scale restoration of the Elwha, with the world’s largest-ever dam removal project, begun in 2011 and completed in 2014, is taking hold.

It would be nice if there were an ecosystem engineer that could cool the water off for the Sacramento River chinook eggs. Ditto the sockeye salmon of the Snake River.

And now bears. Who can resist a bear cam?

(This cam is from the Brooks River in Katmai National Park, Alaska. Sadlly, I cannot embed the live version.)

More centrally, who can resist a beautiful work of science? From Hakai Magazine, another epic:

Following the biorhythm of the bears, [biologist Tom Reimchen] began staying up all night and sleeping by day. He determined that under cover of darkness, six bears were working the stream for the biblical 40 days and 40 nights of the salmon run. As he watched them methodically hauling fish after fish into the deep bush, he conceived a whole new understanding of the flow of life between the land and the sea.

The impact of the salmon-bear connection, Reimchen now knew, surges far beyond the streamside. In Bag Harbour, he found that bears took 80 percent of the salmon run into the forest. When the young salmon leave the natal river, they roam the Pacific, feeding and growing until they return to spawn. Then, with the bears’ help, they contribute their maritime harvest to the forest in the form of their flesh. During the 40-day spawning period, he calculated, each bear ferries about 700 salmon, amounting to 1,600 kilograms of fertilizer, far into the woods. Under conditions of abundance, the bears eat less than half of their haul. By Reimchen’s reckoning, this one small stream provided enough salmon for 2 martens, 4 eagles, 12 ravens, 150 glaucous-winged gulls, and 250 crows. When these animals dispersed through the forest, massive recycling continued as they spread nitrogen through their droppings. Decaying salmon also kick-start a maggot population that emerges in spring to feed warblers and flycatchers that arrive famished after their long journey north.

And the nutrient-seeking trees take up whatever is left over. In fact, up to 50 percent of the total nitrogen the trees use comes from salmon. It’s a give-and-take relationship: the salmon fertilize the trees with their bodies at the end of their lives, and the fallen giants provide backwater nurseries for more young salmon. As the trees decompose, their nitrogen is released into the stream, feeding tiny plants and insects that nourish new generations of fish.

The whole article (“Salmon Trees”) is worth reading in full. Wikipedia summarizes the extraordinary numbers:

Grizzly bears function as ecosystem engineers, capturing salmon and carrying them into adjacent wooded areas. There they deposit nutrient-rich urine and feces and partially eaten carcasses. Bears are estimated to leave up to half the salmon they harvest on the forest floor, in densities that can reach 4,000 kilograms per hectare, providing as much as 24% of the total nitrogen available to the riparian woodlands. The foliage of spruce trees up to 500 m (1,600 ft) from a stream where grizzlies fish salmon have been found to contain nitrogen originating from fished salmon.

(Reimchen wrote in 2000; I’m assuming the still high 24% is a result of further study.)

* * *

Stories and science like Reimchen’s are why I’m really leery of pricing schemes for ecosystem services. When a child goes into a store with twenty bucks as birthday gift, and has to decide how to spend it, they may weigh candy, comic books, and some Transformers against a basketball, or possibly some books and a toy truck or two (using the cash as a unit of account). But none of that seems to be possible with ecosystem services. They are not commensurate by definition because they are interdependent, as salmon -> bear -> tree -> salmon (and beaver -> salmon) show. If you buy a book, you can’t buy the Transformers; but buying (or not buying) the book doesn’t affect the Transformers in any way; they remain on the shelf, unchanged. Similarly, if we optimize for Carbon — since there is a market for it — what happens to the substances we do not optimize for? I don’t think it’s possible to know, at least without a lifetime of study for each affected ecosystem. The entire effort feels hubristic to me; insane in the particular way our elites are insane. I’d be very grateful for any clarity readers can bring to these intuitions, because I have the feeling we will be hearing more, much more, about markets for ecosystem services. Because markets.


[1] Salmon are said to be native to the Northern hemisphere, as the map implies, and only introduced in the Southern, presumably in farms; I don’t know why they didn’t spread to the Southern hemisphere naturally. The heat of tropical water?

[2] From the United States Geological Service (USGS): “There are seven species of Pacific salmon. Five of them occur in North American waters: chinook, coho, chum, sockeye, and pink. Masu and amago salmon occur only in Asia. There is one species of Atlantic salmon.” I’m not going to differentiate between species here, though a serious post would surely do so.


Here is a video from the Taku River Tlingit nation on bears and salmon:

Just a few hits, sadly. Perhaps readers can bump them up a bit.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
This entry was posted in Energy markets, Environment, Guest Post on by .

About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Sub-Boreal

    Splendid. Thanks for doing this.

    On much longer time scales, consider how the salmon have adapted to the coming and going of the ice ages, which cyclically blocked off and restored access to river systems, and the uplift and rearrangement of mountain ranges which changed the layout of watersheds. The ways in which salmon respond to their physical environment have important implications for management of their habitat as part of recovery efforts.

    The “geology of salmon” in its historical and practical aspects is considered in a lovely little article by U of Washington geologist David Montgomery:


    Natural and anthropogenic influences on watershed processes affect the
    distribution and abundance of salmon across a wide range of spatial and temporal scales, from differences in species use and density between individual pools and riffles to regional patterns of threatened, endangered, and extinct runs. The specific impacts of human activities (e.g., mining, logging, and urbanization) vary among regions and watersheds, as well as between different channel reaches in the same watershed.

    Consequently, recognizing and diagnosing the nature and causes of differences between historical and contemporary fluvial and watershed conditions and processes can require careful evaluation of both historical and spatial contexts.

    In order to be most effective, the contribution of geomorphological insights
    to salmon recovery efforts requires both assessment protocols commensurate with providing adequate knowledge of context, and experienced practitioners well versed in adapting general theory to local settings. The substantial influences of watershed processes on salmon habitat and salmon abundance indicate the need to incorporate insights from geology and geomorphology into salmon recovery efforts.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > In order to be most effective, the contribution of geomorphological insights
      to salmon recovery efforts requires both assessment protocols commensurate with providing adequate knowledge of context, and experienced practitioners well versed in adapting general theory to local settings.

      I have no confidence whatever that [genuflects] “the market” can do anything like this.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Taxation had an unwitting impact on calculating salmon counts in Ireland. Inshore fishermen had a built in incentive to understate their annual catches so they fell below the threshold for paying minimum taxes (they would often sell ‘off the boat’ to people like my mother who would go down and buy a salmon or lobster as the came into the harbour).

        My cousin had a boat for many years, and wryly admitted that his tax avoidance cost him in the long term. When inshore netting was banned, the government bought out all the boats and the fishing rights – but as the compensation was based on historic catches, his compensation was far less than he should have expected.

  2. AJB

    I have for many years thought that by making carbon emissions the poster child of the environmental movement, and by making carbon reduction or abatement an industry, we were positioning too many other equally, if not more important, complex ecological issues into the shadows.

    1. ObjectiveFunction

      I entirely agree.

      While oily cold water fish like salmon isn’t to Chinese tastes, at least not until their fleets have wiped out all the other pelagic species, I assume their supertrawlers (and the Taiwanese, Koreans, Russians and Japanese) have still been working over the North Pacific. Would anyone have any data on that?

      I believe the Atlantic cod fishery provided fertilizer for a couple of centuries to boost what is otherwise pretty marginal growing soil in New England and the Canadian Maritimes.

  3. Jeremy Grimm

    Wow! So few comments to this post!

    I should first admit I love to eat salmon. I regard bears, and pigs, especially pigs, as direct competitors to Humankind in our all-too-near future. Bears and pigs are much too smart for our good.

    Markets are Not ultimate information processors or epistemological tools for revealing Truth. Neoliberalism asserted that Markets were such ‘truth Sayers’ without warrants, and such assertions are consistently contradicted in reality.

    I do not believe Humankind can restore the ancient balances of nature. I believe we need to find new balances, and as the times grow hard we must find balances that favor Humankind. The ecological ties between Humankind and the rest of Nature are complex and probably impossible to unravel. Humankind must care for its own first … and take great care that doing so does not endanger Humankind through ignorance of how much our survival depends on the survival of other creatures and of plants. Clearly we do not know or understand enough to follow that goal … but we have no choice. Humankind alone among all creatures on this world, is capable of wresting some small control over what comes next. We can only hope that we might choose wisely.

    1. wilroncanada

      “…we must find balances that favor Humankind.”
      Humankind has historic precedent for a balance that would favor (some) Humankind, a balance which would be the ultimate prize of capitalism: EAT THE LOSERS.

    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      Indian Nation humankind knew all about that, and still knows some about that, despite Western Man’s best efforts to exterminate the knowledge.

      Amazon Basin humankind did, after all, eco-up-terraform the Amazon for centuries before the Explorer Germocaust of the Tribes.

      And the Maya invented their poly-species food forest. Images for Maya Food Forest ( and every image has its own URL which may be clicked on to see if it has anything good.);_ylt=AwrE1xWA6PVgr.cAejJXNyoA;_ylu=Y29sbwNiZjEEcG9zAzMEdnRpZAMEc2VjA3Nj?p=maya+food+forest&fr=sfp

      And here is an example of Western Man trying to learn from those humans who already know all about it how to do what you describe.,perennial%20food%20forests%20to%20meet%20their%20basic%20needs.

  4. Mantid

    Hi Jeremy, I’m going to increase the comments for this fine post by 33.33333 %.
    Anyway. One of the most interesting things I learned about salmon recently is how without them, the US North West would not have it’s amazing and rich forests. The salmon essentially take nutrients from the ocean and bring those nutrients hundreds of miles upstream into the “woods”. When salmon die off, which will happen very soon, a couple years at most in most places on the west coast, it will accelerate the death of the forest.

    Fish emulsion is one of the best, basic, garden fertilizers for nitrogen. It’s not too strong (won’t burn plants) and is organic. With the loss of salmon, we will loose the nutrients they bring to forests, way upstream.

    Early Americans (native populations) understood the value of the fish. Many would put a fish below the seed they planted to ensure a good crop. Ol’ school fertilizer, and effective.

    They are a canary in a coal mine, but they can swim.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      I appreciate and agree with your comment. But I have a problem. Salmon fish emulsions will not be fertilizing the woods of the North West for long — if they still do. I love the woods and meadows of the Pacific North West, much more than my words could convey — but I see a dark future. I love salmon, to eat, but also as a wonder for my imagination. I would cry, and do cry, for the future I see, but I could not cry enough tears.

      “Native populations understood the value of the fish [salmon]”. The only values our culture understands are dollars and cents. No value has been placed on such arrangements with the Natural World as you described. What does not pay in the present quarter has no worth.

      What canary in a coal mine? The ‘coal mine’ will operate until it cannot, canaries be damned.

      1. AJB

        Sometimes, when somebody else states ever so well what you were thinking, it hits you right between the eyes.

        “The only values our culture understands are dollars and cents.”

  5. Ping

    The Weir and Bears video is spectacular and I’ll forward to Louisa Wilcox, a champion of the grizzly in the Rocky Mountain states. With partner Dave Mattson and credentialed associates including the tribes, they host “Grizzly Times” website linked below in defense of bears in Rocky Mountain states against trophy hunting orgs and special interests documenting manipulated wildlife research statistics to justify hunting of depleted populations and eradication.

    The website is a wealth of deep dive information with regular newsletter articles that would be of interest to Naked Capitalism readers.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Thank you very much. There are, I would speculate, a large number of “spectacular” collaborations between the Tribes and genuinely well-meaning non-Tribal members that don’t make an impact because there is no “natural” route for them to make their way in our media “ecosystem.” And so alliances fall apart because results are not seen. So please do forward.

  6. Greg

    I understand that Orca are particularly fond of the salmon and not just any species. They prefer the King which is maybe why it runs 20.00 per pound. Why is it the fish people are so protective of the Orca. It seems like anytime one of the females drops an orcling there’s a huge festival. I’ve yet to see them offered at the fish store.

    1. tegnost

      They prefer the King which is maybe why it runs 20.00 per pound

      correlation is not causation…previous to the onslaught of industrial civilization both orcas and salmon were thriving, and now as the global biomass of salmon is maybe 1/5th of what it had been the price per pound is going up.The number of orcas is also a shadow of what it once was…and you can see them offered at seaworld because they’re not on anyone’s menu as a food source, but clearly in your eyes they are a competitor for dwindling resources, but they’re not the cause.

    2. wilroncanada

      Orca (so-called killer whales) have preferences of particular types of salmon, possibly dependent on their originating river systems, The orca which live more-or-less permanently in the area around southern BC and Vancoouver Island live on chinook salmon. The decimation of chinook stocks has led to the decline–near disappearance–of that particular orca species.
      There are other orca which migrate from Alaska waters to California and beyond. Those groups are slightly healthier, but all killer whales on the west coast are endangered, as result of predation by whale hunters, sea zoos like Seaworld, and overfishing.
      Lambert: you would have watched the cod disappear off the east coast for similar reasons; greed, greed, greed.

  7. Copeland

    Well done Lambert, great writeup. The life history of salmon has always…frustrated me. When a population from a particular stream dies out they say no other salmon will use that stream again because it is not “their” ancestral stream. So how did salmon even “find” the stream in the first place? Something does not compute.

    1. Michael McK

      Salmon get lost, some may just be wanderers. The problem nowdays is that so many streams are damaged there is not a healthy population to quickly repopulate any suitable streams. Given time, and if humans stop overfishing and start restoring habitat on a huge scale, they will recover. Even when a stream does not need to be repopulated, there is a gentle exchange of genes between watersheds.

    2. Converger

      The answer is simple, and powerful. Something on the order of 2% of salmon don’t end up back in their home stream. They go to a different stream, usually (but not always) in the same area.

      Two things happen when they do that. First, the extraordinarily malleable genome (that’s how you get 1400 genetically distinct subspecies along the North American Pacific coast, each exquisitely tuned to its native habitat) in a given stream gets a little shot of genetic variety.

      Second, given a chance, the salmon will eventually re-inhabit every river where it is possible for them to thrive. The Elwha River in Washington State was blocked for nearly a century by two dams, which were finally removed in 2014. Its legendary run of salmon (once regularly reaching 50 kilograms and more) is already thriving as salmon return, re-adapt, and re-grow in average size. The global Salmon Confederation actively inhabits and nourishes every corner of the world it can. That’s why they are totems of place, defining native human cultures everywhere they touch,

      We sometimes treat nature like it’s a delicate, fragile thing. It’s not. Given a chance, ecosystems are incredibly powerful. What’s most amazing to me isn’t that they continue to exist, bringing new life wherever they go. It’s the extraordinary and sustained effort that industrial civilization has made to threaten them.

      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        > We sometimes treat nature like it’s a delicate, fragile thing. It’s not. Given a chance, ecosystems are incredibly powerful. What’s most amazing to me isn’t that they continue to exist, bringing new life wherever they go. It’s the extraordinary and sustained effort that industrial civilization has made to threaten them.

        I agree with all of this. I wish we could somehow align ourselves with “nature” (contested term) instead of working against it (I know this language and conceptualization is sloppy). At some point, nature is just going to solve the problem, perhaps more quickly than we think. And a lot of us won’t like the solution.

      2. Nce

        My limited understanding is that salmon in the majority of CA rivers are totally dependant on the actions of dam operators. Although there are releases to cool the rivers for salmon, in a drought year like this irrigators/senior water rights holders call the shots. Water is $$$ and salmon don’t have any.

    3. PlutoniumKun

      When I was a child I’d go out with a local inshore salmon fisherman in the west of Ireland (this was before the days that this sort of thing was considered dangerous and inappropriate). He used the now banned method of stringing nets across a bay. I was curious at the time as to why salmon would go to the bay when the river was too small for salmon – I was later told that the salmon spent some time exploring the bays in an area before finding their home river, so an individual fisherman could make a small living if he had the rights to a bay even if it lacked a salmon river. There were two well known salmon rivers in the area, so presumably the ones we caught were engaged in that type of search. It was even known for children fishing for mackeral along the coast to occasionally snag a salmon that came too close.

      Poaching at the time was common and considered a national duty, as most river fisheries were controlled by ex landlords. Relatives of mine had a pub and local poachers would hand salmon in via the window in the ladies restroom where my aunt would bring them to the kitchen to make salmon sandwiches for visiting tourists (locals invariably preferred bacon or beef). But rapidly declining stocks made a ban on all but line fishing necessary. My cousin was also a salmon fisherman and his boat was bought out by the government about 20 years ago – but he’s now returned part time, mostly fishing lobster and sea bass. Its less heavy work for an older man than hauling the long nets that were needed for salmon.

      Salmon are recovering, but very slowly – they have returned to some rivers where they were effectively extinct, such as the Liffey. They are now more common on many rivers, although I wonder if they’ll ever come back in any real numbers. The main enemy now is river pollution from over intensive farming. It seems more insidious than the former problem of individual industrial polluters. I’ve often wondered how salmon ‘smell’ their way to a river which has had its chemistry significantly altered by humans.

  8. Krystyn Podgajski

    Mmmm Salmon. They saved my life. Omega 3! CoQ10!

    I was curious because of my my heritage and genetics why I needed fish so badly and found out that the Baltic Sea Salmon that migrated up rivers through Poland, Sweden, Latvia and Lithuania but had become extinct in the 1980s. And they are trying to keep the Danube Basin Salmon from doing the same. These Salmon are called Huchen. When I heard that name I remembered being at the Polish Polka houses and hearing that fish but never knew what it was.

    And I appreciate this story from Salish on how they mix origin stories with conservation:

  9. David in Santa Cruz

    World human population was 450,000 when the Columbian Exchange happened circa 1500. By 1800 that number had doubled to 1,000,000,000 (a billion), despite the collapse of the indigenous American populations in the ensuing 300 years.

    Even with the perfecting of mechanized industrial-grade mass murder during the Industrial Revolution, the population quickly doubled again by 1927, to 2 billion. In fewer than 50 years, by 1974 the number of people doubled again, to 4 billion. Fewer than 50 years after that, in 2023 we human beings will number 8 billion.

    Enough with blaming the Europeans for destroying these elaborately evolved and complex ecosystems. It’s people. We are all parasites and we are killing our host.

    1. vlade

      I assume you meant 450mln in 1500, not 450k. That was level not seen for literally tens of thousands of years if not more.

      But I roughly agree with you, that it’s not _just_ Europeans, albeit you might argue that the latest stuff that contributed to the massive population booms (modern agriculture and medicine) came from Europe, but then it gets all convoluted.

      I also like to point out that it was the _native_, “primitive”, populations that helped to kill off megafauna (they certainly did for moa in New Zealand).

      1. David in Santa Cruz

        Yes! 450,000,000.

        People killed-off the moa. They are believed to have killed-off the mammoth. Also megaflora. Humans de-forested the Fertile Crescent long before European capitalism. Corn is a genetically modified crop created by the Mesoamericans that caused massive malnutrition when spread to populations who didn’t understand the importance of nixtmalization.

        We have been messing with Mother Nature for millennia — but there has never been 8 billion of us; something’s got to give — and soon.

  10. Tom Stone

    I live near the Russian River in Sonoma County and the water is so low and so warm already that I expect a serious die off as it continues to warm.
    Toxic Algae growth is taking off, warning signs went up a month ago…
    And when this drought ends the river is going to get a shock as at least two years of accumulated nastiness washes off the roads and into the River.
    Have I mentioned that half of the @ 5,000 septic systems along the River are estimated to have failed or are failing?.
    And that the debris from wildfires that washes into streams and rivers frequently chokes the gravel beds necessary for spawning?
    We still have both a Steelhead and a Salmon Run, for now.

  11. Jon

    Humans have enhanced salmon habitat in my area of California for thousands of years. A key factor in the salmon’s demise is the removal of the positive human ecosystem services. Native Americans here were essentially fish farmers and the fish were probably the most important protein and fat source for many native groups. Like beaver, people shaped watershed wetland structure and plant communities to provide fish habitat. Their efforts included building a dam for a multi-thousand acre shallow lake in Mendocino counties Round Valley and a dam for 500 acre Tolay lake in Sonoma County. The technology was simple, find a wide spring fed valley with a narrow outflow and use soils, rocks, sticks, willows and wetland plants to clog the outflow. A shallow spring fed lake/wetland is ideal habitat for producing many Native American foods including fish, frogs, roots, seeds, and pollen. These lakes provided nursery habitat for young salmon and supported summer stream flows. Discussing how humans shaped our ecosystems over thousands of years is taboo in our culture because it conflicts with our colonial myths. I don’t see much hope for our ecosystems in the face of climate change unless we retake our human role shaping our living environment to increase its health and productivity. However it is impossible when we have strong culture taboos again the idea that humans can be a positive collaborator with nature and when much of the work that needs to be done is illegal because it frequently violates laws designed to protect nature and frequently conflicts with property rights. I do some of this work for free because on the land I manage but the lack of economic support, the lack of knowledge and the regulatory barriers hugely limit the effectiveness of this work. I manage steelhead spawning streams in two different watersheds and have water the fish disappear in the last 5-10 years. They could probably be brought back for $100,000 of work each but the regulatory costs and barriers would probably make it cost $1M+ for each watershed. Even the simple act ,that people have done for thousands of years, of moving young steelhead to a new stream is illegal. We are choosing to destroy the life that supports us.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > A key factor in the salmon’s demise is the removal of the positive human ecosystem services.

      That’s a good point, although I’d use different language. I believe “ecosystem services” equals commodification equals “the market.” I grant that many users of the term don’t consider that, but “that’s how they get you.”

      > I manage steelhead spawning streams in two different watersheds and have [watched] the fish disappear in the last 5-10 years.

      Thank you for doing this. This is sad.

      1. Jon

        Yes. I agree ecosystem services is an ugly tool for commodification of the inherent value of life. It’s remarkable that the concept of humans doing positive work in nature is so foreign that I don’t know a good language for it.

    2. Jeremy Grimm

      Native Americans had a different concept of land, and the ownership of land. Land owned as a common shared by all can be tended for the good of all. The Market cannot tolerate uncontrolled, unmonetized commons.

  12. Rod

    what a great post Lambert, thank you.
    I learned much and that video was awe inspiring–i cold almost smell the musky fur and feel the river mist.
    I paddled the lower Elwha below the second dam with the wife in 2007 before removal was agreed upon.
    A long time member of AWW(American White Water), my organization was instrumental, along with others, in pushing for the Dam Removal(as they have for a dozen+ others) for the Salmon Run restoration.

    I was skeptical, but as Converger above has said:
    We sometimes treat nature like it’s a delicate, fragile thing. It’s not. Given a chance, ecosystems are incredibly powerful.

    And the Elwha success in just 7 short years is astounding:
    The only river on the Olympic Peninsula with all five species of Pacific salmon, the Elwha once teemed with an estimated 400,000 fish each year.

    there are plans for more…

  13. Jeremy Grimm

    I believe the growing Climate Chaos is changing the environment much faster than many of the existing species of animals and plants can adapt. I hold little hope that the juggernaut of Climate change will leave intact much of the natural world we know. And Humankind has already achieved so much wanton destruction of nature. Though laudable I am pessimistic that any amount of effort to restore some of the damaged and dying ecosystems will be able to do much more than slow their collapse. It has been evident for some time now that nothing will be done to deal with the Climate Chaos, with the exploding populations of Humankind, with the rate that resources are extracted and used up. The world our children, and our children’s children will inherit will not be as welcoming as our world once was.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      We may have to take salmon to the Arctic Ocean so they can survive there if the Pacific becomes too hot for salmon to survive.

      1. Jeremy Grimm

        Unlike some other species, they are able and may take themselves there. If they need help, I for one would do all I could to help them. But do not ask me to help wild pigs pushing a quarter ton.


    Dr. Lisa Crozier (NOAA Northwest Science Center) has focused on the likely effects of ongoing climate change on salmon and steelhead populations in the Pacific Northwest. Her work suggests that we will lose a substantial fraction of existing populations, especially where dams block or limit access to and from higher, cooler areas in the watersheds in which they live. Much has been done throughout the region to improve fish passage and more will need to be done if we are to maintain healthy, harvestable salmon and steelhead populations.

  15. Jack Parsons

    Another fun fact about salmon: the word “lox” is a Proto-Indo-European root word. It means “salmon”.

    The only place that the PIE people would have encountered salmon was on the Black Sea- therefore we know the PIE people were wandering around the Black Sea in a particular time period.

Comments are closed.