Category Archives: environment

Save Our Wild Salmon

Somehow I missed the official kick-off of Save Our Wild Salmon‘s road show in Seattle on April 9. Maybe you missed it too. I get tons of mass-mails from a variety of enviro groups. The cumulative effect can be a desensitizing. But now, with the emergency closure of much of the West Coast to commercial and recreational salmon fishing, Save Our Wild Salmon’s newest campaign to spread the word is gaining traction. That’s a good thing, because wild salmon and steelhead don’t have much time left in the Lower 48.

The road show will travel 10,000 miles through 20 states on its journey across the country to Washington, D.C., “to educate the public about the Northwest salmon crisis and encourage people to be part of the solution.”

At the center of the road show is Fin, a 2-ton, 25-foot fiberglass salmon. You can keep up with the migration of Fin at Save Our Wild Salmon’s blog.

Bottom line: Breach four pork-barrel dams on the lower Snake River asap!

(Thanks to Buster Wants to Fish for bringing this to my attention.)

To Eat of Not to Eat, Vol. 2

A couple months ago I posted my first volume of To Eat or Not to Eat, with the question revolving around the edibility of Amanita muscaria, the infamous fly-agaric mushroom of fairy tales and kitsch culture. In that case, the mushroom is inherently poisonous and requires skillful preparation for the table—but what about mushrooms with dangerous chemical makeups that are caused by external environmental conditions?

The above image was swiped from Chickenofthewoods. COW is a veritable morel magnet [reminds me of the prank played by cooks on gullible new busboys at the Black Dog Tavern: “Too many mushrooms in the soup! Bring me a mushroom magnet from the restaurant across the street! Hurry!!”… But that’s another story], and this photo documents his first morel of the year, one mushroom hunters might call a “bark beauty” or a “mulch morel.” He found it in downtown Corvallis, OR, in some new landscaping.

We mushroomers love finding bark beauties, particularly those of us urban foragers stuck in the city. Signs of life! No fossil fuels necessary! The thing is, though, there are questions about the edibility of these mulch morels. Where did the mulch come from? Was it sprayed with chemicals during processing? Did the property owner carpet-bomb it with herbicides?

On top of those questions, there are biological implications regarding the mushrooms themselves. Many species of fungi are known to be bio-concentrators of environmental contaminants—that is, they soak up and sometimes even magnify the nasty chemicals and heavy metals in the soil and air around them. This fact became painfully clear after the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown; around many parts of Europe wild foraged mushrooms are still subjected to radioactivity tests before going to market.

These questions can lead an inquisitive mushroom hunter down a dizzying rabbit hole of self-doubt. For instance, if there are questions about mulch morels, what about the morels that pop up each spring in fresh clearcuts? Loggers are known to spray herbicides before planting the next generation of Doug fir monocultures. Is the mushroom love worth the risk?

Or burns. Morels can be prolific in the year following a forest fire. But what if PCB-loaded fire retardants were used, or other chemicals? Do burned forests release naturally-occurring chemical combinations that are less than desirable in our food?

Over at the Cascade Mycological Society’s forum we’ve been discussing this topic after fellow morel fanatic Sleromevoli stumbled on a goldmine of bark beauties only to learn from the landowner that the area was just hammered with herbicides. He let them be. But no doubt some other ‘shroomer is hungrily eyeing those morels and might not ask such questions—or might not care. What about you? I’d like to hear from some morel maniacs on this topic.

Wake-Up Call

California’s coastal salmon season has been cancelled. That’s right, all coastal fishing for salmon—both commercial and recreational—is kaput. The Governator has declared a state of emergency and filed for federal disaster relief. Even though the ban is for only one year, this could be the death-knell for the state’s storied commercial salmon fleet. Much of Oregon will be shut down, too. The San Francisco Chronicle has the story.

FOTL’s condolences go out to his brothers and sisters of the angle to the south, and though his home state dodged the bullet, Washington won’t be looking forward to a stellar season either, with chinook spotty and coho numbers way down.

These are not good times to be a salmon and steelhead fisherman. We can only hope that a move as drastic as this will provoke the necessary soul-searching to effect change. Salmon evolved to survive droughts, floods, volcanoes, predation, periodic downturns in marine productivity, and whatever else Mother Nature could throw at them. But they’re no match for dams, hatcheries, pollution, rapacious logging, profligate irrigation, flood-plain subdivisions, and desert golf courses. Do you want wild salmon? The choice is ours.

The Cost of Our Appetites…

…for cheap power, timber, produce, development, and so on.

A story in today’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer by enviro reporter Robert McClure raises the specter of $40 salmon this season. That’s $40 per pound! Federal authorities will be meeting near Seattle this week to decide the fate of California and Oregon’s chinook fisheries. As reported earlier, the California fishery is on the verge of total collapse, with returns at historical lows. We keep hearing noise about poor ocean conditions beyond our control, but really now: Could it just possibly be that agricultural diversions, subdivisions, dams, pollution, and a host of other man-made problems up and down the Golden State have finally taken their toll?

The modern history of salmon is a history of depletion and collapse wherever humans have settled and fished, with government failing the people at every step. The first to go were Atlantics in Western Europe, then Atlantics in the New World, now Pacific salmon on the West Coast. Is Alaska next? Fortunately the State of Alaska is taking steps to safeguard its prolific wild runs, such as a ban on farmed salmon. But timber, mining, and development continue to knock at the door.

Let’s look at McClure’s article a little more closely, because at least we have a reporter here who gets it.

* In the 8th graf he notes the rising price of chum salmon, the species of Pacific salmon at the very bottom of the commercial totem poll, the salmon also called “dog” because it’s frequently used to feed sled-dog teams rather than people way up north. This is a scary thought.

* The next graf is telling, with a quote from a seafood marketer who refers to America as a “nation of salmon eaters.” Good for us. Salmon are a superfood, loaded with Omega-3 fatty acids. When managed correctly, they provide a renewable cocktail of nutrition on a massive scale. We would be beyond stupid to let such a resource slip away.

* In the 11th graf McClure explains that the Alaska catch forecast for this year is down from last year by more than a third—but no biggie, because last year saw a peak catch. Salmon are cyclical. While their numbers go up and down, if managed correctly the down years can still be good years, with no reason to fear the future.

* Graf 15 presents the enviro view of California: the slide is due to “diversions of massive amounts of water to farms and cities from salmon streams in California’s Central Valley.”

* The next graf is the usual hemming and hawing from the feds: “…an unusual weather pattern that pummeled the marine food web, killing tens of thousands of seabirds and leaving the young salmon with little to eat.” Maybe. But nature doesn’t usually conspire to eliminate a species as resilient as the salmon.

* A little further down McClure introduces an interesting wrinkle: the fact that, despite the catastrophic chinook projections, the commercial whiting fleet is dumping overboard an estimated 6,000 dead salmon off the West Coast, salmon caught in their nets known euphemistically as “bycatch.” Hello? Can the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) please do something about this? And even if you’re going to allow bycatch, can we please get those dead salmon back to shore so we can use them in the myriad in-river restoration projects going on that require salmon carcasses to replenish the nutrient load, projects such as this.

* Which leads us to graf 29 way down near the bottom of the article, the money graf in my opinion. In the larger picture this could be called a case of burying the lead, but give McClure credit—very few reporters ever get this far at all. In graf 29 McClure explains the nature of what is known in scientific circles as shifting baseline syndrome as it applies to Pacific salmon, and I’ll quote the graf in its entirety: “Overall, salmon runs have been pummeled in Washington and Oregon, compared with historic levels. For example, while scientists estimate that perhaps 5 million to 9 million chinook returned to the Columbia River each year in the late 1800s, the number returning there from 1979 to 2006 averaged just 135,000.”

There it is folks! Your greatest chinook salmon factory on the planet, the Columbia River system, has gone from producing an average of 5 to 9 million chinook annually to 135,000. California’s great chinook nursery, the Sacramento watershed, is in similar straits. Blame this sudden 100-year plummet on poor ocean survival? I think not.

So when—if—you pay $40 for two serving sizes of salmon at the fish market, ask yourself just what the cost really is.

(top image Adam Holloway)

The King Is…Dead?

A story has been developing in the last few weeks about the Sacramento River and its mysteriously vanishing run of chinook, or king, salmon. Last year’s run was 10 percent of the run just five years ago, and this year’s is projected to be even smaller. The San Francisco Chronicle has an update.

Is this really a surprise?

Certainly salmon runs fluctuate over time. But when hit with the multi-whammy of dams, development, irrigation, timber harvest, pollution, and innumerable other man-made affronts, even these incredibly resilient fish are finally waving the white flag. What really disturbs me is that the current low runs in the Sacramento might be seen by my children as not so bad when they’re older. This phenomenon is known as the shifting baseline syndrome, and it’s at the heart of our predicament.

It’s painful to imagine a day when salmon swim mostly in city fountains. (Photo by Stephen Rees)

A River’s Return

Today’s Seattle Times has a story about efforts to start rehabilitating Washington State’s Elwha River in advance of dam removal scheduled to begin after 2010. The local Klallam Indian tribe has been placing hundreds of spawned-out salmon carcasses into the river above the dams to mimic conditions of anadromous fish runs.

Quote: “We are looking at how it affects the freshwater food web, and is it stimulating algae growth and creating food for invertebrates,” said Sarah Morley, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric research ecologist in Seattle who developed the project.

The Elwha was one of the Northwest’s great salmon rivers before it was illegally dammed in the early 20th century. Five species of salmon returned to the river each year, including legendary chinook in excess of 100 pounds. (To learn more about the Elwha and its salmon, check out Jim Lichatowich’s definitive account of declining Northwest salmon runs, Salmon Without Rivers.)

As with the eruption of Mount St. Helens, scientists have a golden opportunity to study the before-and-after effects of a major environmental event. They also need to prepare the river for what hopefully will be an epic “comeback” story.

What’s so cool about the impending dam removal is that most of the watershed won’t require the sort of restoration that is usually necessary in such projects. The Elwha above the dams is in pristine condition (except for air-borne pollution we read about earlier this week) and is protected by Olympic National Park. The river is ready and waiting for salmon and steelhead to once again migrate up its waters. Bring it on!

Dept. of Sick and Wrong

If the trout are lost, smash the state.
—Tom McGuane

Today’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer has a disturbing story about the chemicals and heavy metals found in our last best places. The levels are off the charts.

The report comes from a six-year study out today that examined pollution levels in eight western parks.

Quote: “We’re looking at some of the most pristine areas left in North America that are under the protection of the national parks, and we’re finding some alarming results,” said Dixon Landers, a senior scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Health and Environmental Effects Laboratory.

Trout from Olympic National Park recorded some of the highest mercury levels measured in the study and were considered unsafe for human consumption. Fish caught at Golden Lake in Mount Rainier National Park sported the highest levels of—ahem—flame retardants (PBDEs).

Quote: Among the report’s more surprising results were signs that some male fish were “feminized.” For years researchers have linked female egg proteins in male fish with the presence of obvious estrogen sources, such as birth control in sewage waste. In the park study, the protein was found in some of the fish with the highest levels of chemicals that can mimic hormones—including PBDEs.

FOTL is very unhappy about this report. FOTL doesn’t buy trout from behind a refrigerated glass case or trout wrapped in plastic or even trout from a restaurant. FOTL wouldn’t order Truite au Bleu from the most famous French restaurant where Truite au Bleu is the specialty, M.F.K. Fisher be damned. In short, FOTL doesn’t do farmed fish. FOTL catches his own wild trout in the backcountry and cooks it up proper.

And if the trout are toxic waste dumps, what about the mushrooms? Fungi are famous for concentrating chemicals and heavy metals in the environment. Should we be avoiding those gifts of the earth like the plague too?

There’s only one recourse: Get involved. Make change happen.

I’ve Seen the Future … and It Has Six Legs!

Today’s New York Times magazine has a brief but intriguing article on the food of the future: “Man Bites Insect,” by Sam Nejame.

Money quote: “Why douse fields with pesticides if the bugs we kill are more nutritious than the crops they eat?”

The article features a Rhode Island community college writing teacher who has made it his mission to introduce the joys of entomophagy to the wider, bug-fearing public. Says David Gracer: “Insects can feed the world. Cows and pigs are the S.U.V.’s; bugs are the bicycles.” You can visit Gracer’s blog “Bugs for Dinner!” here, or check out his fledgling business Sunrise Land Shrimp here.

I’ll have more to say on this subject in upcoming posts.