A Common Fate: Endangered Salmon And The People Of The Pacific Northwest

A Common Fate: Endangered Salmon And The People Of The Pacific Northwest

by Joseph Cone

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Though life on earth is the history of dynamic interactions between living things and their surroundings, certain powerful groups would have us believe that nature exists only for our convenience. One consequence of such thinking is the apparent fate of the Pacific salmon--a key resource and preeminent symbol of America's wildlife--which is today threatened with extinction.

Drawing on abundant data from natural science, Pacific coast culture, and a long association with key individuals on all sides of the issue, Joseph Cone's A Common Fate employs a clear narrative voice to tell the human and natural history of an environmental crisis in its final chapter.

As inevitable as the November rains, countless millions of wild salmon returned from the ocean to spawn in the streams of their birth. In the wake of an orgy of dam building and habitat destruction, the salmon's majestic abundance has been reduced to a fleeting shadow. Neglect is the word the author uses to describe more recent losses, "by exactly the ones--state and federal fish managers--who should have acted."

To signal a new awareness that action is needed, scientists charged with restocking the Columbia River Basin are receiving significant support, while ordinary citizens are beginning to recognize the relationship between cheap power and the absences of chinook, coho, sockeye, and other species from the coasts of Oregon and Washington and from Idaho's Snake River.

As desperate as the salmon's future appears, the book is not an elegy for a lost resource. Instead, it bears witness to hope. In addition to concrete plans for the wild salmon's renewal, the reader will hear a growing chorus of informed individuals of differing values and beliefs who recognize that our fate is inextricably bound to the salmon's; for many it is a new understanding.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466884267
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 10/28/2014
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 340
Sales rank: 1,051,289
File size: 426 KB

About the Author

Joseph Cone, whose book Fire Under the Sea was named one of the top science books of 1991 by Booklist and Library Journal, directs communications for the Oregon Sea Grant, a marine research and education program affiliated with Oregon State University.

Joseph Cone, whose book Fire Under the Sea was named one of the top science books of 1991 by Booklist and Library Journal, directs communications for the Oregon Sea Grant, a marine research and education program affiliated with Oregon State University.

Read an Excerpt

A Common Fate

Endangered Salmon and the People of the Pacific Northwest

By Joseph Cone

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 1995 Joseph Cone
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-8426-7


Denial and Engagement

If the courage is lacking now to take the steps necessary to sensible conservation, we shall have the losses and the hardships eventually anyway; with the difference that, if action is delayed, depletion will have progressed further and rehabilitation made just so much more difficult.

— Willis H. Rich, "The Future of the Columbia River Salmon Fisheries," 1940

The wind came in gusts off the slate gray ocean, surging hard as if it would charge up into the mountains. It blew rain over Highway 101, dousing the sparse morning traffic of cars, log trucks, RVs, and one government-green sedan heading south out of Florence. Inside the sedan, Gordon Reeves reached over on the seat and, eyes fixed on the rainy highway, plucked another carrot stick out of a sandwich bag. Judiciously, he took a first small bite. He was thinking, and he liked to chew things up fine.

It was only 10:30, but this was lunchtime for Reeves, and the inside of his car was his fast-food place this morning, another busy one of a busy week. He had left home and gone to his office at 7:00 A.M., then driven two hours, down the Oregon coast. He was spending more time alone in a car than he liked, but it was giving him a chance to think about what he was seeing in the forests of the Coast Range. What he was seeing worried him. Reeves, a fish researcher and ecologist with the Pacific Northwest Research Station of the U.S. Forest Service, had gotten himself what he considered an interesting, and quite likely controversial, assignment. He was evaluating how successful the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management were in their efforts to improve conditions for salmon in the federal forests of the Northwest.

To do the evaluation, he needed to investigate an enormous amount of country, not just the Coast Range but also parts of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon and Washington and the coastal mountains of northern California. This morning in March 1988 he had driven from Corvallis, in the valley east of the Coast Range, over the coast summit.

It had begun to rain as soon as Reeves started up into the coastal hills. In good years, the Pacific Ocean dumps huge quantities of rain and snow on the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. With enough rain and certain sorts of soils, the mountain slopes spawn a multitude of streams, draining the rain off and sending it back to the ocean. Rain was necessary for salmon. It was a comforting thought as Reeves peered beyond the windshield wiper.

But it wasn't just a matter of topography and climate, not just mountains, streams, and rain. The salmon also needed certain conditions in their living space, and over millions of years they had evolved to find those conditions in the mountain forests of the Northwest. Geography was destiny for the salmon, and that destiny was relatively secure as long as the streams, mountains, and forests changed only with the slow rhythm of geological time.

The problem, Reeves knew, was that the secure time was long gone. As he drove along the coast now, he thought about how things had changed in the forests in the last hundred years and especially in the last ten years, and about how those changes affected the salmon. And he chewed his carrot sticks.

Not far out of town, the roadside cafes and the shops that rent dune buggies petered out, and the highway slipped into a tree-lined route marked by turnoffs for the national recreation area and for parks and campgrounds. Places had melodious Indian names such as Siltcoos and Tahkenitch, but most of the Indians were long gone. This stretch of the Oregon coast was the sort people thought of when they considered it still mainly wild and unpopulated. They were right about the unpopulated part, at least relatively speaking. It was not Connecticut or Virginia. But wild? Reeves knew well that that was only relative, too.

As he passed Tahkenitch Lake, the clouds hung low on the forested hillsides, wreathing their way among the trees. He nodded his head as he watched the streaming clouds. He knew he wasn't likely to see much of that effect on the lower Smith River: not enough trees.

The turnoff for the Smith, a few miles farther south, was announced by a huge International Paper Company pulp mill, squatting on the banks of the estuary, its lights on in the pallid daylight. The mill sat not far from the spot where in 1828 a band of Indians had attacked the camp of the fur trader Jedediah Smith, one of the first white travelers through the area. All fifteen men in camp were killed, though Smith himself happened to be away. When he discovered the dead men, he fled north, through uncharted mountains crisscrossed by swollen rivers and bogs. Before he finally reached the outpost of the Hudson's Bay Company at Fort Vancouver, on the Columbia River, he had endured great hardships. That was the story people tended to know. What grievances the Indians had against the animal trappers had been forgotten.

Three years later, Smith himself was killed by Comanches on another fur-trading expedition. Once he left the Northwest he never returned to the river on the Oregon coast that was named after him, commemorating the massacre. All in all, it was an inauspicious beginning for the European-American possession of the region.

As Reeves turned off the highway and onto the river road, the sour smell of paper pulp lingered in the car. It went with the territory. Most of the private lands owned by International Paper and others had been logged, and many of the hillsides looked stripped, showing only a few trees of any size. In many places the bottom land alongside the river had been turned into pasture for cattle. Here and there up one of the short ravines that notched the foothills a double-wide house trailer, a pickup truck, and a TV satellite dish announced the presence of a resident. But Reeves drove fifteen miles up the river road without seeing anyone. It was that sort of rural Oregon — where you don't see people, only their effects.

The Smith River ran mostly through Douglas County. More timber regularly came out of here than from any other county in Oregon, which meant it was also one of the top timber counties in the whole United States. For decades, Coos Bay, the port thirty miles south of the Smith River, had reigned as the largest lumber-exporting harbor in the world. Reeves knew that the timber harvest in Douglas County was prodigious; one billion board feet of raw timber per year was common in the 1970s and '80s. A board foot is an inch thick, a foot long, and a foot wide. A billion board feet of logs yielded enough lumber to frame about one hundred thousand houses of the preferred American size, two thousand square feet.

Things taken out and not put back disturbed Reeves's sense of balance, and he watched grimly as he passed the stubby hillsides. But he didn't have much say about what people did on private lands. His job was to look at what was done on the public lands.

At an intersection, he turned off the main road and up into the hills, alongside the North Fork of the Smith. This drainage would have been heavily forested once, but as Reeves ascended the winding logging road the consequences of the road's placement were clear. Most of the forest adjoining the road had been logged in the 1950s and '60s, clearcut down to stumps and brush. For about ten miles or so he drove past clearcuts and stands of small young trees. Then abruptly, past a turn in the road, the hillside returned to thick forest. By law, the National Forests were required to be managed for "multiple uses," which included fish and wildlife, water, recreation, and wilderness, as well as timber. The managers of the Siuslaw National Forest had decided to leave this part alone. Reeves slowed down, looked at his written directions, then pulled off the road and stopped.

Unbending himself from the driver's seat, he came out under a canopy of Douglasfir trees, which diffused the rain into a drizzle. He popped the trunk, reached for a couple of duffel bags, and, standing quietly in the drizzle, began to take his clothes off.

Six feet fall, Reeves had the healthy look of a man who was outdoors much of the time and, in his late thirties, also still played sports whenever he could — in his case, squash. He liked the speed, concentration, and finesse involved in a good game of squash. He liked the challenge when things were going fast.

Down to his underpants, he took a neoprene brace and slipped it over his left knee. Years before, he had played hockey in college, but that had ended abruptly with knee troubles. The knee troubles didn't end, though. After three conventional surgeries and one arthroscopic operation, the surgeon had told him he had the knees of two different men: one a thirty-five-year-old, the other an eighty-five-year-old. Reeves wasn't interested in moving like an eighty-five-year-old, so he wore the brace and tried not to let it get in his way.

Quickly now in the chilling air, he put on long underwear and stepped into a blue rubber dry suit, squeezing his ankles through the black skintight neoprene cuffs. Fussing and breathing out hard through his nose, he forced his head through the collar. Reaching behind him, he pulled the long zipper across his shoulders and stood up straight. He should stay dry, unless the suit had holes he hadn't seen.

Reeves was one of a handful of fish researchers in the Northwest who pioneered the use of wet suits and dry suits for examining rivers. He had gone through this drill — of taking off blue jeans and sweater and putting on an underwater suit — hundreds of times, alongside logging roads from California to Alaska. Now, as he sat on the bumper, lacing up his felt-soled boots, he was eager to finish the preparations and get into some water he didn't know.

Carrying his face mask and snorkel, he clambered down to the river past a sparse clump of white-barked alder trees. He was lucky; he had to travel only a short distance upriver. With a grunt he pulled the rubber hood over his head and smoothed it around his close-cropped beard. He slipped the face mask and snorkel over the hood and stepped into the river.

At the surface, the river looked like a troubled mirror, reflecting broken bits of sky. But underneath that surface Gordon Reeves entered a different world, separate and whole. He eased himself in.

The icy current jingled past his ears as he moved quietly but firmly against it. He swam a kind of dog paddle where the water was deep enough, and braced himself and crawled on his hands and knees where it wasn't. As he moved, he disturbed some fine silt on the streambed, which rose up in brown plumes. Flecks of green from the forest tumbled by in the current. An orange newt darted by on its way over to the riverbank.

The swimming and river walking were clumsy because the streambed had very little texture, nothing to hold on to, little for Reeves to steady himself against. The bottom was smooth and uniform. Too smooth and uniform, he thought. There were no fish.

In a few minutes he came to the project, several logs placed across the creek, cabled into the bank and bottom. Moving upstream, Reeves swam up to these logs while looking at the streambed. He saw no gravel downstream of the logs. He stepped out of the stream, walked past the logs and got back in. There was no gravel above them either. Reeves stood up again and blew out his snorkel.

"That's not going to do much," he said out loud.

He shook his head slowly, and looked around. Up on the hillside, young trees were growing. But other parts of the forest system did not seem to be coming back. Where was the gravel?

Reeves didn't know. It might have all washed out in the big flood of 1964, when the torrential rains that scoured the hillsides met no resistance from the roots or the downed limbs of standing trees or the trunks of fallen trees, because there weren't enough of these left. They had been taken out in logging or cleaned away afterward. There might just not be any more gravel, at least not for a long time.

Which was a shame, Reeves thought as he looked at the logs, because they were placed in the stream at considerable cost and with considerable hope of trapping gravel. The structure had been built for the salmon because they needed gravel, but it didn't matter a damn. He hadn't seen any salmon and he doubted any would be there. Or if they passed by, they wouldn't stay very long.

Pulling his face mask off, he shuffled out of the stream and walked back to the car.

* * *

Gravel, of a certain size and quantity, is only one of the necessities salmon get from an intact forest system. During the last fifty years scientists have shown that salmon, like all other creatures, have evolved in close relationship with their physical environment. More than with most wild creatures, perhaps, this evolution has written a remarkable life history. The closer a person comes to the details of the story, the more intriguing it becomes. But even the simplest outline is appealing.

Scientists call the Pacific salmon and their close relatives the sea-run trout "anadromous." It's a perfect word for those who know Greek, but a clumsy one that most people instinctively mispronounce. The correct way is with the accent on the second syllable. Anadromous simply means "running up." The Pacific salmon (chinook, coho, chum, pink, and sockeye) and the trout (steelhead and cutthroat) all run up rivers as adults.

But that's a long way from where their story begins.

First, they are born in a river or stream, where they stay until they have become the size of a finger — "fingerlings" — or larger. Then, all in a rush of hormones and physiological changes unsurpassed by most other adolescents, their constitution is transformed. Starting out as creatures of freshwater, the juvenile salmon become creatures able to live in the salty waters of the sea. Other fish such as the Atlantic salmon and striped bass also breed in freshwater and live much of their lives in the ocean. But less than 1 percent of all fish species are anadromous like them.

It is hard to think of an exact human comparison for the fresh-to-salt metamorphosis. The magnitude of it may be conveyed, though, by imagining making a rapid change from breathing oxygen to breathing carbon monoxide.

Remarkable as it may be, the little salmon do abruptly move from a comparatively protected life in shallow, wooded streams to swimming out into the vast, mysterious ocean. Here their adventures truly begin. For as many as six years they make their way, often thousands of miles, in a dangerous world. Where the salmon go is only sketchily known, but many populations entering the ocean from the Pacific Northwest swim up to the Gulf of Alaska and then circulate with the prevailing currents out as far as the Aleutian Islands. As they swim, they feed voraciously on such creatures as small squids and shrimplike euphausiids. Gradually they grow to adulthood. Then, obeying an urge that is far older than they and not to be denied, they return to freshwater, to mate and spawn.

At this time of their lives they seem paragons of creation. Once, the Columbia River boasted a prime summer run of salmon, dubbed commercially as the "Royal chinook." (The locals also knew them, less grandiosely, as the "June hogs.") These giant fish commonly reached four feet in length and sixty pounds, and their heads were proportionately large and fierce-looking. It was easy to attribute extraordinary qualities to these wanderers.

In the lower Columbia River they were often caught in big nets hauled in by workhorses. When caught, they resisted furiously. Their skin was a mottled bronze, and beneath it their deep orange-red muscle tasted ripe, rich, and buttery when cooked. The flesh would never again be as firm and delicious as it was when the fish entered the river for their spawning runs. In the 1880s, the fishery based on the June hogs established the reputation of Columbia salmon throughout the United States.

For all the salmon that escape the fishery — today, as then — an arduous journey often lies ahead. The spawning run takes them not just anywhere but to the streams of their own birth, often near the exact spot where they were spawned. The journey inland may encompass hundreds of miles and take weeks of effort, and was usually done without eating.

Finally, home, in a fine flurry of beating tails, the females deposit eggs in the streambed and the males release their milt in the water above, fertilizing them. Exhausted by their efforts, adult salmon die shortly thereafter, often in a matter of days. Some anadromous trout survive and can spawn again.

Of the many remarkable things that these fish do during their lives, perhaps none is more extraordinary then the run home, upriver, against the current. In their determination to get to their natal streams they will not stop trying. Again and again they throw themselves upriver over waterfalls. The leaping defines them and gives them their common name.

"Salmon" derives from the Latin verb meaning "to leap": salire. The English have been using the word "salmon" to describe this genus of fish since at least the thirteenth century. A chronicle of Richard the Lion-Hearted refers to "fysch," "flesche," and "salmoun." Even then, salmon was apparently considered something quite distinctive — no mere fish.


Excerpted from A Common Fate by Joseph Cone. Copyright © 1995 Joseph Cone. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title page,
Copyright notice,
One: Denial and Engagement,
Two: Conflict,
Three: Crisis,
Four: Questions of Values,
Five: Hope and Dread,
Six: A Common Fate,
Appendix: A Chronology of an Ecosystem Crisis,
Also by joseph cone,

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