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A Fish Story

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Historically the Pacific Northwest of North America has been one of those spots in the world where food is usually abundant. The sea along its coast has always been a good provider, and the most important gift was the Pacific salmon that once filled its rivers and streams from far west of Alaska to Central California. That is changing.


This year the return of Sockeye to the Fraser River collapsed and, finally, the Canadian government ordered a judicial inquiry into why this happened. The reasons why are actually pretty straightforward. The question is will the inquiry see it, or will it go through motions, inventing reasons that can be addressed without upsetting the many stake holders with claims on the fishery? And, if it does come up with the real answer, will the government actually fix the problem, or will it buckle under to those powerful interests who have so much to lose from any program to restore fisheries to historic levels?


The problem of fishery depletion is not unique to the Pacific Northwest. Anyone with any amount of knowledge about Canada knows the problems in the Atlantic cod fishery and how it collapsed. And world-wide fish stocks are being depleted as the sea is giving up its fish faster than they can reproduce.


Over-fishing is a big factor in the disappearance of the world's fish stocks, as the global human population increases so does the demand for seafood. And to make matters worse, fish are also harvested for pet food, fertilizer and feed for farm fish and other animals. In fact, it is estimated that about one third of fish caught are turned into feed for poultry, swine and other animals. Worse, much of the fish being used for this are the small forage fish which larger fish species depend upon.


Another factor in fishery depletion is habitat destruction. In the case of salmon this includes the obvious damming of rivers and diversion of run off, as well as destruction of riparian habitat by logging practices, agriculture and urban sprawl.


I can remember over fifty years ago when the world had only one third of the number of humans it has now, and many forests were still untouched, and commercial fishing methods were not as refined. In those days, we had plenty of fish everywhere up and down the coast. In my inland community many farmers took a break for a week or two in the summer to go to the coast and catch salmon and can a winter's supply. In California, this has not been possible for many years now, and the shortage of fish has been creeping northward to Oregon, Washington, and now BC.



In California recently, they finally imposed no-fishing zones off of the coast to help rebuild fish stocks. Also, in a landmark case in defense of salmon environmentalists have won a fight in California mandating the rehabilitation of the San Joaquin River to the salmon producing stream that it was over sixty years ago, before they dammed it for irrigation water. And, in Oregon and Washington they are discussing removing dams from the Columbia and Snake rivers to rebuild their salmon stocks. These actions are a beginning.


The problems facing our Sockeye and other fisheries are not secret. Over-fishing and habitat destruction are the key culprits. Fixing this will not be painless as it will adversely impact commercial fishers, sport fishers, logging operations, developers, and others exploiting the riparian and maritime environments. Measures should also include huge areas of no fishing zones up and down the coast, a ban on fishing herring and other forage fish, and a considerable investment in watershed protection and restoration.


What remains to be seen is if the government has the ability to follow science and do the right thing, or if it will play politics with our fishery to protect the interests of those who profit from over-exploiting it.

 

Jerry West grew up on a farm in California and is currently Editor and Publisher of THE RECORD newspaper in Gold River, BC. Graduate with Honors and graduate school, UC Berkeley. Member, Phi Beta Kappa. Vietnam veteran and Former Sgt. USMC

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