March 3 Wild Steelhead Coalition presentation
David Montgomery's March 3rd Presentation
March 3, 2004 Guest Speaker - Dr. David Montgomery, University of Washington
Title - King of Fish: the thousand year run of salmon
Dr. David Montgomery specializes in the landscape evolution and the geomorphology of rivers, in part working to understand how climate, landscape, vegetation, and moving water interact to form structure in rivers. David’s work has led him to studies of in-stream salmon habitat in the Northwest, with an eye toward the history of salmon and landscape evolution and salmon-human interactions. His presentation started with the very long view of possible causes for the evolution of the modern species of Pacific salmon, and then followed with his perspectives on the thousand year fall of salmon that started with Atlantic salmon in Europe, moved on to the collapse of Atlantic salmon in New England, and then onto the past century of salmon declines in the Pacific Northwest. Among the really interesting things I learned from David’s presentation were:
• Pacific and Atlantic salmon diverged from a common ancestor about 10-20 million years ago
• The classical idea for the divergence of modern Pacific salmon species holds that the period of ice ages that started around 2 million years ago prompted the isolation and divergence of modern Pacific salmon species, yet fossil salmon of modern species pre-date those ice ages by up to 8 million years!
• modern Pacific salmon species first appear in the fossil record around 8-12 million years ago, a timing that coincides with the uplift of modern topography on the Pacific coast of North America … David believes that this uplift is a likely cause for the isolation of ancient Pacific salmon that then led to the evolution of the modern species; the topography of the east coast of North America, in contrast, is little changed over the past 100 million years and this may explain why there is only one species of Atlantic salmon
• David’s research was able to trace public concerns over the 4-H’s (harvest, habitat, hatcheries, and hydropower/dams) back to 1030! For example, in 1030, King Malcolm II of Scotland established closed seasons for taking spawning salmon. Scottish kings in the 1200’s and 1300’s issued proclamations to protect habitat and outlaw barriers to fish passage.
• Well into the 1800’s, the same issues of habitat, harvest, and dams continued to appear in European Atlantic salmon conservation laws and discussions, yet enforcement wasn’t strong enough to stop the declines in Atlantic salmon habitat and populations
• When the first Europeans settled in New England, Atlantic salmon abundance was exceptionally, rivaling that of Pacific salmon in the Northwest in the early 1800’s, and Atlantic were an important food source for early European Americans. By the 1890’s, Maine’s Atlantic salmon lost access to 90% of their historic habitat due to dams. Today, the abundance of Maine’s Atlantic salmon is about 1% its historic level.
Key common factors in the decline of Atlantic salmon in Europe and New England were:
1. an over-reliance on local control of salmon habitat and fisheries, and lax enforcement of laws protecting fish and habitat
2. the gradual accumulation of many small negative impacts
3. an over-reliance on hatcheries at the expense of habitat preservation
4. a lack of land use controls and long-term planning
After going through this historical information, David posed the question: “Are we repeating the Atlantic salmon decline in the Pacific Northwest?”
His answer: “of course”.
In terms of habitat issues, we’re only now starting to realize the extent to which we’ve lost productive salmon habitat. David’s lab at the University of Washington is now working to develop historic maps for salmon habitat in Puget Sound estuaries and floodplains by using old photographs and maps from the past. Their work to date finds that floodplain marshes and valley bottom wetlands are essentially gone from the Puget Sound lowlands, and this represents a tremendous loss of salmon and steelhead habitat.
David finished his presentation on a more hopeful note, however, by stating that it will be possible to accommodate more human population growth along with more fish in our future, but it will require careful planning and significant land-use changes to realize those goals. He suggested that the key discussion about long-term land-use planning is not now happening in Olympia. His recommendations for the key issues supporting long-term strategies for allowing growth and restoring salmon populations in the future are to:
1. convert river corridors that are now in agricultural lands into networks of salmon sanctuaries along major river floodplains
2. hire and empower river-keepers
3. stop fishing on endangered salmon and steelhead stocks
Speaking for the members of the Wild Steelhead Coalition, and for the non-members that attended our March 3 meeting, thanks David for your terrific presentation.
To learn more about David's perspective on salmon issues, read his new book titled King of Fish: the thousand year run of salmon, published by Westview Press (and on sale through Amazon right now for $18.20).
VP of Science and Education
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