The Northwest Indians knew salmon in ways that I can never imagine. They knew them as companions in the world, totems of wisdom and seasonal abundance. They knew them as currency, bartered for goods from inland neighbors. And they knew them as food, succulent and rich, cured, smoked, and dried.
As a fisheries biologist in my early days, I knew salmon in other ways. I knew them as a flash of silver on Port Dock Seven in Newport, as a statistic coded on a tiny embedded wire, and as victims of dams, sedimentation, aquaculture, and years with no ocean upwelling. And I knew them as food. Not just grilled steaks or poached fillets, but also their scallop-like cheeks and the oily rich muscle that powers their pectoral fins.
Wild Pacific salmon may be the signature food of the Northwest, but it is also the icon of the region. There are other fish—other foods—that are consumed by more people and that contribute more to Oregon’s economy. But there is no other fish or food or mountain or image that means more to Oregonians. So in the 1970s, when the runs of wild salmon seemed to suddenly slow, Oregonians became alarmed. Sardines had crashed a generation earlier, and the old lunker sturgeon were rarely seen anymore in the Columbia. But to lose salmon was to lose our identity as Northwesterners.
Dozens of scientists at OSU, and their partners at state, federal, and tribal agencies, have spent their careers trying to untangle the mysteries of Pacific salmon and what needs to be done to sustain them. They’ve debunked early assumptions that wild runs could be easily replaced by hatchery fish and that salmon could forgo rivers and migrate instead in barges and trucks. They have demonstrated what might have seemed obvious: that fish need water, and that salmon in particular need clean, cold water in free-flowing rivers lined by healthy forests.
When I was a young fisheries biologist, part of my job was to monitor the progress of wild Chinook salmon as they made their way from river to sea. There were other researchers who measured the ocean conditions that awaited the fish, still others who tallied their return several years later. What we didn’t monitor was the slowly growing pressure surrounding the salmon’s journey, pressure from new housing developments, roads, sewage treatment plants, all the markers of a booming economy. What we didn’t see was that we are connected to salmon, as companions in the world, and their survival may be our totem of wisdom and our marker of a sustainable economy.