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True Magic

“Magic exists. Who can doubt it, when there are rainbows and wildflowers, the music of the wind and the silence of the stars?”

Nora Roberts

Nooksack River, home to all five species of Pacific Salmon. WA.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we have a very special magic. It is the amazing and incredulous life cycle of Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus): Chinook, chum, coho, sockeye, and pink. Salmon have played a role in our local economy, culture, and especially for indigenous peoples for millennia. The stages of this anadromous life cycle, first hatching in freshwater, migrating to the ocean to grow, returning home to their birth streams to spawn, and then die, is, like magic: miraculous, supernatural, and transcendent.

“Salmon are the soul of the Pacific Northwest. “In their return upriver to spawn, they are the symbol of the life force of this region.”

Joe Cone, Endangered Salmon and the People of the Pacific Northwest

Chinook Salmon, Maple Creek Reach, Nooksack River. WA.

What spells, alchemy or sorcery must salmon possess in their ability to survive at all? Avoiding commercial and sport fishing, Orcas, seals and so many other predators. Transitioning from salt to fresh water and traveling hundreds of miles from the Pacific to the Rockies and past coastal wolves (in British Columbia where they can eat up to 27 fish per hour), otters, eagles, and brown and black bears. Fighting the impacts from logging, agriculture, dams, pollution, as well as climate change and warming waters. Finding their way back to the very place they were born, and males and females spawning at the precise right time. Perseverance, relentless, magic.

Caught! Brown Bear & Salmon. Brooks Falls, AK.

Magic, as well, how salmon affect everyone and everything here in the Northwest. Truly the symbol and lifeblood of anyone who lives, works, eats in, or visits Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska. Salmon are the cornerstone for what makes the Cascadia ecosystem so unique and special – sea to mountains, cascading rivers and streams, fresh water, forests, and sublime beauty and nature.

In Search! Nooksack River, WA.

The magic of salmon continues even after death. Dying salmon add nitrogen and marine derived nutrients (MDN) to the water which is absorbed by trees, animals and plants. Spent salmon fertilize downstream reaches, provide food for larvae and insects like caddisflies, and create a nutrient-rich environment for future hatching salmon. Dying salmon even feed trees within the watershed, which in turn provide shade, and, when those trees eventually fall back into the water, provide habitat and places of calm and sanctuary for future salmon.

Destination Upstream! Whatcom Creek, Bellingham. WA.

For Pacific Northwest tribes the life cycle of salmon goes far beyond magic. These fish have played an integral part in tribal religion, culture, and sustenance for thousands of years. For tribes, salmon, and the rivers they use provide a sense of place and the return of the salmon means renewal and the continuation of human and all other life.

Nooksack River Morning! WA.

But while salmon are magical and relentless, humans have proven they are not indestructible or unstoppable. Before the 20th century, an estimated thirty million wild salmon and sea run trout came upstream to spawn. Today, salmon have already gone extinct in forty percent of their historical range, and, since 1991, sixteen species of wild salmon have been listed as threatened or endangered.

“The true magic of this broken world lay in the ability of the things it contained to vanish, to become so thoroughly lost, that they might never have existed in the first place.”

Michael Chabon, American novelist.

Sockeye. AK.

In the past, the Columbia River basin saw ten to sixteen million salmon and anadromous steelhead return annually. Today, some estimates show the return of wild fish to be two percent of that. Locally here in the Salish Sea, studies show a decline of sixty percent of Chinook salmon just since 1984.

Whatcom Creek, Bellingham. WA.

One story from 1992 demonstrates both the determination of salmon, as well as the serious issues affecting the future of this species and all those (human and other) that depend on it. One sockeye salmon, named Lonesome Larry, swam some 900 miles, went around eight dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers, and climbed 6,500 feet in elevation to return to his natal spawning ground in Idaho’s Redfish Lake – only to find no other sockeye had survived the journey.

Salmon, Water & Color! AK.

These dams have turned 900 miles of cold, fast-moving river into a collection of warm (well above 68 degrees where salmon suffer) and stagnant reservoirs. For Larry and other salmon, a trip that used to take about three weeks now takes two to three months. More time to face predation, disease, and overheating.

As salmon are an indicator species, this is not good news. The plight of our water quality and quantity, forests, oceans, and wildlife are all inevitably tied up with the future of salmon. Agriculture, transportation, and even energy in the Northwest are inexorably tied to the salmon life cycle as well.

Sockeye Salmon, North Fork Nooksack River. WA.

Nowhere is this more on center stage than the push to remove the lower four Snake River dams. Most recently a final federal report determined that breaching the dams is one major way to protect salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin.

Hanging Out! Whatcom Creek, Bellingham. WA.

In so many ways, everything we love will be diminished if salmon continue to decline – or continue to extinction. What steps are we willing to take to preserve the soul of this wonderful region? What price are we willing to pay for magic? Home of the salmon!

“Take something you love, and – in your imagination – say goodbye forever right now. Grieve for a moment. Then feel the explosion of happiness that comes when you remind yourself you don’t have to say goodbye.

At least, not yet.”

Penn & Teller

Caught 2! Brooks Falls, AK.


· For many years, I worked on protecting and improving river resources. Part of that was removing dams that were no longer productive, needed, or those that had a too-high environmental (and often economic) cost. So I support removing the Snake River dams. When Maine’s Edwards dam was removed in 1999, fish came through the breach in just hours, same for Oregon’s Marmot Dam in 2007. On Washington’s Elwha River, salmon were already bumping up against the lower Elwha dam (removed in 2011. The upper Glines Canyon dam was removed in 2014). So dam removal is a proven boon for salmon protection. It is the logical next-step from an environmental and fish perspective – but even with removal salmon need cleaner, cooler water, and protection from the ravages of climate change. So dam removal is the start, but not the end. For more on dam removal, see Restore, Letting Dams Go.

· Shortly after the Snake River dams were put in place, sockeye returns to Redfish Lake fell from 30,000 to the single digits. In 1991, Redfish sockeye became the first salmon species to be listed as endangered.

· Salmon Trees, Hakai Magazine (really interesting article).

· Restoring the Lower Snake River, Save Our Wild Salmon.

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