Wild salmon are so embattled right now I can't bring myself to fish for them. After I moved to the coast I put my fly-rod in storage. When the salmon are running, I run forest trails, trying to catch sight of wild fish torpedoing through pools and slithering across gravel bars. When a trail I'm running ends, I bushwack and slog upstream, tracing a small segment of a salmon's remarkable journey that spans hundreds, or even thousands, of miles.
A few days ago, a coho as long as my arm sped up my heart. I ran across a bridge over Ecola Creek to take a photo before the scarlet-sided fish disappeared. After it shot upstream toward its spawning grounds, I heard the noise of a nearby logging operation. My heart raced again—but not in a good way.
Most of the Ecola Creek watershed is preserved thanks to the foresight of Cannon Beach. The city acquired forested land to protect its water supply. Yet clearcutting continues just outside the boundaries of the Ecola Creek Forest Reserve, and the fate of salmon in the Ecola Creek watershed, throughout the Pacific Northwest, and across the world, is uncertain.
The single coho I saw is a remnant of the great salmon runs that once filled rivers and streams of the Pacific Northwest. The native people who lived on these shores never wanted for food. But dams, destructive forestry practices, poor land stewardship, and shortsighted fisheries management—both over-harvesting and relying on hatcheries that rear genetically inferior fish—have decimated this bounty. Uncountable multitudes of salmon have been reduced to a sad fraction of what once swam through the region's rivers and streams.
Despite our relentless abuse of rivers and oceans, some salmon have managed to survive. We can prevent salmon from being added to the increasingly long list of animals that children not yet born will know only through virtual reality animation. We can keep salmon in the real world. Ensuring that the children of the future see salmon in streams that run through primordial forests is an achievable goal—if we can muster the resolve to make some changes.
The rebirth of the Elwha River following a recent dam removal project illustrates the resilience of nature in general, and salmon in particular. With a little help from us through enlightened land use, smart forestry and fisheries management, pollution reduction, dam removal, and climate change mitigation, wild salmon will return from the deep sea to the forest streams of their birth, continuing a cycle that has filled people’s bodies with sustenance and their minds with awe for many thousands of years.
Seeing a salmon in a creek sparks hope. Witnessing the renewal of the Elwha River fans those sparks into fires of optimism. To stoke those fires and keep them burning, we can restore rivers and oceans by picking up trash, raising awareness about climate change and ocean acidification, volunteering on watershed councils, pursuing careers in relevant fields of science, supporting dam removal projects—there are so many ways to get involved and help keep salmon running.