Monday, January 30, 2012

Lose the Memory, Lose the Fish

The sound of migrating salmon splashing was so loud it kept people awake at night.

Imagine that luxury: of lying in bed as salmon after salmon after salmon surged by.

Where did this happen? Alaska? The Russian Far East?

No. This happened in Boise, Idaho.

No need to grab your fishing rod. Those splashing salmon have disappeared.

I live near the Boise River. I fish it regularly. I run and walk along the Greenbelt. It remains a beautiful river, full of trout and whitefish. Bald eagles soar overhead; mule deer graze along the banks. I see river otters and beavers, ospreys and great-horned owls.

But no salmon.

No. Salmon. Here.
Mark Davidson, The Nature Conservancy’s Central Idaho senior conservation manager, grew up on a farm in Jerome, in southern Idaho. Speaking with his family about salmon, even his grandfather couldn’t remember a time when salmon reached the base of Shoshone Falls on the Snake River, once the end of their journey from the sea.

“That memory is important,” Davidson says. “When you lose the memory, you lose the fish.”

Once salmon migrated and spawned in many Idaho rivers. But once they’re gone, they seem like ghosts.

No, worse. They seem…impossible.

Salmon in downtown Boise? No way.

Salmon in the southwestern Owyhee desert? Seriously?

It’s the same for grizzly bears or sage grouse. Lose the memory of them in a place, and they’re gone forever.

Still Here
Fortunately, salmon do still swim in rivers: in Alaska, yes, but also in parts of the Pacific Northwest. It’s not too late.

True, salmon face a daunting set of obstacles and challenges as they complete a 900-mile journey. Idaho’s fish are born in small tributary streams. As fry, they swim to the ocean, then as adults repeat the entire journey in reverse, returning to their tributary streams to spawn, and then die.

The rivers and streams salmon die for are in the Salmon River valleys of central Idaho.

Sometimes, the salmon make it nearly the entire journey only to find no water in their spawning stream.

But as long as they’re still here, there’s hope. Idaho remains a state where people not only have salmon memories, they can still see the fish jumping falls, finning in shallows, spawning, dying.

The fish are still here. Can we make sure it stays that way?

--Matt Miller

Photo by Michelle Wilhelm, USFWS.

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