Salmon Depletion Is A Bad Omen

For those of us who hate to succumb to stories of environmental doom and gloom, there's a situation brewing out west that gives doom-and-gloomers new credibility and new reason to howl. The headline:

The largest salmon run in the largest estuary on this hemisphere's Pacific Coast has collapsed.

Why should we care, as's Dr. Kirk James Murphy so aptly put it, "about [the collapse of] a bunch of fish and a big marsh?"

We should care because just as scientists can read great meaning into a grouping of stick-figure-like carvings struck inside a cave 20,000 years ago, they also can read great meaning into the collapse of an incredibly important yet environmentally sensitive species of fish. The near death of the wild California and Oregon salmon speaks volumes about what has gone seriously wrong with the fish's environment. It's our environment, too.

The northern California rivers that drain into the estuary we know as the San Francisco Bay on their way out to the Pacific had until recently provided enough healthy water to sustain these North Pacific salmon runs.

But diversion of northern California river water to Southern California for human consumption and the Central Valley for food production have left river levels extremely low. The young salmon died because they overheated in the uncharacteristically low Klamath River.

Fewer than 60,000 chinook, known in fish markets and on menus of swank restaurants as king salmon, are expected to spawn this fall in the river, less than half what regulators say is needed to justify a nominal fishing season and just a fraction of the 800,000 that arrived from the sea during the bumper crop of 2002.

The young salmon died on their way to a multiyear fattening-up session at sea after hatching and spending a year or more maturing in an estuary. If they had lived, they would have returned to the river habitat to repeat the reproduction cycle and spawn the next generation of wild salmon.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council, which will issue its final decision about shutting down salmon fishing season next month, is a quasigovernmental body that manages fisheries in the Northwest. PFMC staff say there could be many reasons for this season's crash in wild river salmon stock, including poor ocean conditions. But one thing is clear: While salmon runs are now limited to northern California, they used to be plentiful up and down the West Coast.

Increased human habitation has drained northern river volume.

Overdevelopment and overpopulation have turned millions of acres of wild places into sprawling suburbs. Environmentalists used to say that it was not the number of people in the United States killing the environment, but the way we developed (to wit, suburban sprawl) that was destroying the environment.

But that was when our population was at 200 million. We're now at more than 300 million and growing. One wonders whether any future amount of "smart growth" can save this country from destroying its most treasured natural resources.

By Bonnie Erbe