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Earth Day’s 50th Anniversary

Humans have relied on salmon for as long as we have lived on the coastlines and rivers of the northern hemisphere – or the ‘salmonshpere’ as it is starting to be known. From the native peoples of the northwestern edge of the Pacific Ocean to the Salish people of Puget Sound, salmon were the currency and lifeblood of their daily existence and culture. This week in 2020, as we celebrate Earth Day and renew our connection to the natural environment, we do so in the spirit of native peoples who have understood for millennia that salmon are a gift from nature to be recognized, honored and celebrated.

This 50th anniversary of Earth Day is a good time to reflect on our relationship to this keystone species, what their plight and recovery tells us about our own condition, and where we see hope on the horizon. On the first Earth Day in 1970, concerns were mounting here and around the world about rivers on fire and unbreathable air. But salmon harvests in Pacific Northwest (BC, WA, OR and CA) were still relatively robust. Fortified by millions of hatchery fish and nurtured by a streak of good ocean conditions, harvests in the region numbered between 35 and 60 million fish. And in 1974, Tribes successfully reclaimed their treaty rights to fish in their usual and accustomed areas through the Boldt Decision, and were designated co-managers of the resource, along with the state of Washington.

However, happy days were short-lived here for people and salmon. In the late 1980s, salmon populations and harvests started to plummet. By the late 1990s when wild Chinook, chum, coho, sockeye and steelhead were being listed under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), salmon populations in the Northwest were already extinct in as much as 40% of their former spawning areas, and harvests were reduced to a quarter of the highs from previous decades. In a stark reality check, the harvest of all salmon species combined in British Columbia last year was the lowest on record, only 1.6% of peak harvest 35 years ago. A combination of factors led to this decline, and while harvest was immediately ratcheted back, other threats are requiring significant work to pin down and address.

The community response in Washington state to salmon ESA listings was both immediate and novel. We would take on the responsibility to execute our own plans for recovering habitat for salmon, watershed by watershed, community by community. Tribes, local governments, forest managers, business and NGOs all contributed. This bottoms up, “can do” approach became known as the “Washington Way”, and has guided recovery efforts since 1999. The critical need now is adequate funding to implement.

Presaging this hands on approach, Long Live the Kings (LLTK) was founded in 1986 by salmon advocates wondering if they could sustainably supplement salmon populations by working in concert with habitat restoration and fisheries managers to help restore wild salmon and support sustainable fisheries. LLTK started out by running three novel field facilities, two based on natural rearing techniques and one focused entirely on rescuing wild salmon populations at risk of extinction. LLTK’s trajectory since then has mirrored the evolution of salmon management and recovery. We have led on important and consequential efforts like guiding hatchery reform, understanding poor marine survival and infusing recovery plans with community input and data on climate change. For over three decades, LLTK has worked to advance science, improve management and implement solutions for salmon and people.

On this 50th Earth Day, let’s take stock of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we want to go, and let this be the first day of the next 50 years protecting our salmon, our communities, and our planet.