Dangers Await Upstream for Local Salmon

With damns coming down and the battle over “Frankenfish” heating up, what lies ahead for local salmo

Trolling with a guide off Malcolm Island near the northern end of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, we watch the rod tip, hoping for a strike. It’s 6:30 a.m., and the sky over the Coast Mountains looks like the underbelly of a salmon. The rod tip dips sharply, and I let out the line, trying to keep the fish on. I don’t want to blow it; I haven’t caught a lot of salmon lately. Regional salmon fishing has been inconsistent over the last decade, spiking in 2010 when 30 million sockeye salmon returned to the Fraser River, the best run in a century, with similarly strong runs returning along the West Coast. ¶ That run was great news for fishermen and everyone concerned about the iconic species of the Pacific Northwest, but it’s been a mixed bag of good and bad news for local salmon of late. The past year or so has brought significant developments for salmon on several fronts—including some serious threats.

The Good News

The region’s salmon fishery got an historic boost last fall with the removal of older dams along the Elwha River. In mid-September, contractors began the three-year process of simultaneously removing the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams in order to restore a free-flowing river. That project—the largest of its kind in U.S. history—will reopen more than 70 miles of pristine spawning and rearing habitat in the Elwha River and its tributaries at a cost of more than $324 million. Salmon populations there should increase from 3,000 to nearly 400,000 as all five species of Pacific salmon return to one of the region’s most productive salmon streams.

“The removal of the Elwha dams is very good news,” says Tony Floor, director of fishing affairs for the Northwest Marine Trade Association and a former Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesman. “[In the past,] the Elwha produced some of the largest king salmon known to man, fish up to 100 pounds.”

In addition to growing large kings, the increased habitat will improve the health of the state fishery. “It will open up tremendous spawning areas,” says Jim Aggergaard at Catchmore Charters in Anacortes. “As soon as the dam is removed, they can pass the lower four miles, up to Lake Sutherland and tributary streams.”

The weather appears to be on the salmon’s side as well. “La Niña conditions are great for skiing and salmon,” Floor says. “The lower temperatures trigger a higher survival rate for salmon, which makes for outstanding fishing. We just experienced one of the biggest king runs on the Columbia in the last 50 years.”

And, for now, local salmon appear to have dodged one very dangerous bullet: Reports that infectious salmon anemia (ISA)—a pathogen linked to aquaculture that has killed millions of farmed salmon in Europe and Chile—was detected in British Columbia could not be confirmed. That’s a huge relief, at least for now, but leading researchers and scientists continue to stay on high alert.

In fact, our state gets high marks from Floor for battling other dangerous viruses; he says state officials have dealt swiftly with viruses in hatchery fish, destroying fingerlings in the case of outbreaks. But he sees the recent ISA scare as an example of what can happen if governments don’t pay attention. “When salmon farming got started, Washington allowed only 13 permits in Puget Sound,” he says. “British Columbia went wild, issuing hundreds of permits.” Our state, says Floor, is more vigilant: “Canada took a much more liberal approach. They have learned by baptism by fire: virus outbreaks or sea lice explosions. I’m a proponent of hatchery salmon and farmed fish, but I think hatcheries and farmed salmon need to be scrutinized. I think Washington has done a good job with this.”

The Bad News

Some worry about the ecological impacts of local farmed salmon, which, like farmed Atlantic salmon, can escape and compete with wild salmon for habitat. Farming has also taken an economic toll on Northwest wild salmon fisheries.

And while the Fraser River run fueled optimism about wild salmon recovery around the region, not all areas or species have enjoyed such a resurgence. The reasons for that aren’t clear; despite extensive fish-tagging and research efforts, the data is still incomplete. Wild chinook salmon in Puget Sound remain on the threatened species list. Coho salmon runs in Puget Sound have stagnated, surviving at low levels. The regional salmon fishery represents a very complicated picture, with some species—such as sockeye and pink salmon—booming, while other species—sometimes, king and coho—struggle, at least in the Puget Sound region.

Fears for Northwest salmon are leading some state lawmakers, including Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, to take a firm stance against another threat that’s brewing: genetically modified Atlantic salmon. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is considering whether to approve the AquAdvantage salmon, which would be the very first modified animals on American dinner tables. Many are concerned that these so-called “Frankenfish,” modified with a growth-hormone gene to grow larger and faster than natural salmon, are as yet untested, and could contribute to certain cancers in humans. There is also the worry that the fast-growing fish will flood the market, harming our state’s fishing industry. While the FDA is considering the issue, two pieces of legislation are making the rounds: one to ban genetically modified fish outright; the other, to require labeling. In February, consumer groups urged the FDA to require rigorous testing of the fish before approval. The issue remains a hot topic for lawmakers, environmental and consumer groups, and the Canadian company AquaBounty Technologies, which created the AquAdvantage salmon. There is no word yet on when the FDA will make its decision.

Despite the threats to their survival, salmon runs persist—occasionally even thrive. My fish, for one, is a fighter, taking out line, making angry rushes back toward the kelp bed. But slowly and carefully, I work it into the boat. The beautiful 12-pound king thrashes as my guide slips it into a net.

“Welcome aboard,” he says to the fish. “You’re the guest of honor at a dinner party in Seattle.”

2016 Crosscut Courage Award Winners

2016 Crosscut Courage Award Winners

The 2016 Crosscut Courage Award winners don't walk away from difficult conversations and challenges
Back row: Honorees Richard Romero, Courage in Business, and Stephen Tan and Joey Cohn, Courage in Culture. Front row: Colleen Echohawk, Courage in Public Service, and Martha Choe, The David Brewster Lifetime Achievement Award

A trailblazing public servant who has spent decades in government and philanthropy. A banker who has given immigrants a foot in the door toward citizenship. A nonprofit leader who works to better the lot of Native Americans. And a thousands-strong community group that came together to save a beloved public radio station.

What do they all have in common? When faced with the choice between dialogue and rhetoric, between engagement and flight, they chose to stay and to talk—to struggle through difficult conversations in order to make things better for all. That’s why they’ve been selected as the winners of Crosscut’s 2016 Courage Awards.

Seattle magazine is proud to partner with online news journal Crosscut (crosscut.com) in recognizing these local leaders whose personal and professional dedication is making our region more vital, equitable and inclusive.

Courage in Culture Honoree
Friends of 88.5 

Last November, Pacific Lutheran University announced it was selling local National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate KPLU-FM to the University of Washington (UW). KPLU’s newsroom would be disbanded and its jazz programming absorbed into KUOW-FM. For the leaders of the 50-year-old KPLU, it would have been easy to just fold up the microphones and send the staff to look for work elsewhere: The $7 million deal was all but done, pending approval by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

But that didn’t happen. Instead, bowing under immense community pressure, the UW granted the station’s members a moonshot chance of matching the university’s offer and buying the station themselves. They had six months to do it.

Working under the banner of Friends of 88.5, a nonprofit created in a matter of weeks out of the vestiges of KPLU’s community advisory board, supporters and station leaders—including Joey Cohn and Stephen Tan—organized rallies across the region, including a KPLU day in Tacoma. They took to the airwaves, conscripting Audie Cornish, Quincy Jones and others to make their pitch. And they organized groups of longtime donors to provide matches of as much as $500,000.

Today, KPLU is KNKX, an independent nonprofit. The station is not totally out of the woods yet: It now needs to rebuild its reserves and find enough money just to operate. But amid a sea of dismal news about the decline of journalism, the Friends of 88.5 are a life raft.

Courage in Public Service Honoree
Colleen Echohawk

Soon after accepting the post of executive director of the Chief Seattle Club two and a half years ago, Colleen Echohawk realized that the organization had to do much more to address the multiple traumas faced by American Indian and Alaska Native people in Seattle. 

These populations suffer from a whole range of ills, from poverty to addiction to homelessness. Last year, 16 native people died while living on the streets or facing housing instability. Echohawk needed resources, but she had no experience with fundraising and found the idea of approaching groups like United Way frightening.

Today, United Way is the club’s biggest funder, and the Chief Seattle Club, a presence in the city since 1970, has become a larger force in promoting public safety and solving the crisis of homelessness. The club has added weekend hours, and the staff has grown from seven to 15, including a case manager to help with housing for the 100 members it sees daily, most of whom experience chronic homelessness. 

“She has got this way of being very positive and constructive,” says Mark Putnam at All Home Seattle, the organization coordinating homeless efforts in King County. He praises Echohawk’s ability to build strong relationships while also pushing issues, including awareness of the extreme racial disparity in homeless rates.

While Echohawk loves the many ways she has seen Seattle respond to her club members’ needs, she thinks it’s particularly hard for them to face isolation and homelessness in a city whose name honors a native leader. “This city,” she says, “is losing out on incredible people.” If Echohawk has her way, that will change.

Courage in Business Honoree
Richard Romero

For many immigrants, the path to U.S. citizenship is a difficult one. To get there, they must wait in a long line in which their nationality can determine their priority. They must learn about our system of government, memorizing more than many natural-born citizens actually know. And at the end of it all, they must hand over a hefty amount of cash.

To go from holding a green card to becoming a naturalized citizen, an individual immigrant must pay a $680 filing fee. For families, the fees can add up to thousands of dollars. That’s a tall order: As many as half of King County’s 100,000 immigrants eligible for citizenship may be impoverished, according to Seattle’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs. 

Under the leadership of CEO Richard Romero, the Seattle Metropolitan Credit Union has begun helping with this final hoop via a novel partnership with the City of Seattle that provides loans to immigrants. The city’s main role is to communicate with immigrant populations about the availability of the loans. The credit union takes care of the rest.

While there’s been lots of bluster this year about building walls and turning immigrants away at our borders, Romero’s initiative honors one of our country’s core values and lends a helping hand to those seeking a better life.

Lifetime Achievement Honoree
Martha Choe

If you spotted her on the bus in the morning, with her low-key, unassuming manner and neatly parted hair, you might not guess that Martha Choe is one of the most influential people in Washington’s recent history. But Choe has been a trailblazer for both women and people of color in Washington. 

From her terms on the Seattle City Council and work in state government to her leadership in the banking sector and global influence as the chief administrative officer of the Gates Foundation, Choe has embraced a leadership style that prioritizes compromise and getting things done over popularity and easy point scoring. 

Leadership requires both “vision and reality,” Choe said in a recent talk at the Henry M. Jackson Foundation. “Leadership involves people, not just org charts and boxes. Learn, listen and understand different perspectives.”

Choe used this approach to get Asian at-risk youth off the streets by investing in community centers. She helped revive Seattle’s downtown by reopening Pine Street to cars and bringing more than 1 million square feet of retail space to downtown Seattle between 1996 and 1998. And she spent a decade overseeing the operations of large portions of the Gates Foundation—including human resources and the hiring of staff—building the philanthropic powerhouse into its present form. 

As someone who has dedicated her lifetime to public service and steady leadership, Choe exemplifies what it means to be an involved, courageous citizen of the Pacific Northwest.