Sunday, April 13, 2008

Of salmon and trout and canaries in a coal mine

Just in case anyone is not familiar with the meaning of the phrase "like a canary in a coal mine" this is it:
"Early coal mines did not feature ventilation systems, so miners would routinely bring a caged canary into new coal seams. Canaries are especially sensitive to methane and carbon monoxide, which made them ideal for detecting any dangerous gas build-ups. As long as the canary in a coal mine kept singing, the miners knew their air supply was safe. A dead canary in a coal mine signaled an immediate evacuation."
I bring this up because wild Salmonids (trout and salmon) are often referred to as the canaries in the environmental and watershed "coal mine". They require cold clean fast flowing water. They are hypersensitive to pollution, water flow, silt, and water temperature. If conditions are changed due to the effect of logging near streams, or rivers being dammed and providing insufficient flow, or wildlife management policies that permit overfishing, the trout and salmon die. It is that simple.

Some examples of how this metaphor has been used in articles and books:
"Like the canary in the coal mine, the wild Atlantic salmon is a biological indicator that signals loss in water quality." -Atlantic Salmon Federation
"How can salmon and trout be used as quick-action environmental monitors, the piscine equivalent of the canary in the coal mine?" - Canada Genome - Toronto Star
"Brook trout are the canary in the coal mine when it comes to water quality," said Gary Berti, Trout Unlimited's Eastern Brook Trout Campaign Coordinator. "The presence of brook trout in a watershed indicates that water quality is excellent. Declining brook trout populations can provide an early warning that the health of an entire stream, lake or river is at risk." - Trout Unlimited
The abundance and health of the fish themselves remain in most cases the best integrated measure of the ecosystems that salmon traverse and inhabit. Salmon are often likened to the canary in the coalmine..." -Pacific Salmon & Their Ecosystems
These quotes are from older articles that were simply making the point that Salmon and Trout populations are an early warning system for our water quality, watershed and wildlife management policy.

If the salmon are lost smash the stateCanaries in the Pacific Watershed
Last week, we got a more timely report. The canary is dead. And we now know we have a real environmental problem in the ecology of the river system 'coal mine":
Is Calif. salmon fishery finished?
SAN FRANCISCO, April 13 (UPI) -- The one-year ban on fishing for Chinook salmon could kill the commercial salmon fishery in California, officials said. The number of boats has dropped from 4,000 to 400 in 15 years, The San Francisco Chronicle reported.

End of coast's 150-year-old fishery looms
Carl Nolte, Chronicle Staff Writer Saturday, April 12, 2008
The ban on all commercial and sport fishing for chinook salmon in California and most of Oregon this year could be the beginning of the end for a whole way of life. Commercial fishing is an industry that is deep in the heart of life along California's 1,000-mile coast, where fishing ports from Crescent City to Morro Bay have supported generations of fishing families. Now, for the first time since commercial fishing began on the West Coast more than 150 years ago during the Gold Rush era, no boats will be permitted to put to sea to fish for chinook, the fabled king salmon that is the mainstay of the commercial fishery.
The question goes begging. What happened to the salmon? There are many theories, and scientists are, as yet, unwilling to state that they know the reason. I won't pretend to have a definitive answer, but I do have an informed opinion.

It starts with an administration that has an ideological agenda to prioritize political and economic interests over wildlife:
"Law and science seemed to be on the side of the fish. Then the vice president stepped in. First Cheney looked for a way around the law, aides said. Next he set in motion a process to challenge the science protecting the fish, according to a former Oregon congressman who lobbied for the farmers. Because of Cheney's intervention, the government reversed itself and let the water flow in time to save the 2002 growing season, declaring that there was no threat to the fish. What followed was the largest fish kill the West had ever seen, with tens of thousands of salmon rotting on the banks of the Klamath River. Characteristically, Cheney left no tracks. The Klamath case is one of many in which the vice president took on a decisive role to undercut long-standing environmental regulations for the benefit of business. By combining unwavering ideological positions -- such as the priority of economic interests over protected fish -- with a deep practical knowledge of the federal bureaucracy, Cheney has made an indelible mark on the administration's approach to everything from air and water quality to the preservation of national parks and forests. " - Washington Post -June 2007
Then the administration cooks the science to further their ideological objectives:
"The Bush administration has now found a novel way around these inconveniences: a new policy on counting fish. Its practical effect would be to eliminate the distinction between wild salmon and hatchery salmon, which can be churned out by the millions. This sleight of hand would instantly make wild salmon populations look healthier than they actually are, giving the government a green light to lift legal protections for more than two dozen endangered salmon species as well as the restrictions on commerce that developers and other members of President Bush's constituency find so annoying. Policy makers at the National Marine Fisheries Service say they are merely obeying a federal judge who was unhappy with the way the government distinguished between wild and hatchery fish. But in drawing up the new policy, the service ignored the scientists who urged that the protections remain in place. It relied instead on a Washington-based political team whose key player was Mark Rutzick, a former timber industry lawyer. Such a step may be good politics for the Bush administration. But it is bad science and bad news for wild salmon."- New York Times - May 2004
This results in the removal of "endangered" status for wild salmon runs, and permits the wholesale diversion of water from the Klamath and Sacramento Delta Salmon habitat to agricultural interests.
"Although Sacramento River chinook salmon suffer from an array of problems, the most significant are the massive export of water from the California Delta by the state and federal pumps and declining water quality. Meanwhile, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his corporate agribusiness and developer buddies are pushing for a peripheral canal and more dams that would allow the projects to export even more water in an estuary whose fisheries are already crashing. On the Sacramento, where the salmon collapse is the immediate cause of the fishery closure, state and federal government water managers diverted and pumped an all-time record high of 6.4 million acre feet of water from the delta in 2005, the same year juvenile salmon that would have returned as adults in 2007 were attempting to migrate through the delta and out to sea, according to Earthjustice. "What's happened is no surprise given the massive water diversions from the Sacramento San Francisco Bay delta and the failure to address toxic discharges into this estuary, an ecosystem critical to the survival of the salmon run that drives our west coast fishery," emphasized Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations (PCFFA). "It's obvious that we've got to go to work to both save fishermen and fix the delta to bring back our fishery." - Dan Bacher - Truthout - April 11, 2008
And so, the canaries die. The message is clear, when the canaries die, the mine water is not safe.

Canaries in the Wisconsin Watershed
On a more local scale, HDW at HDW Mobile Blog has been waging a campaign to prevent politics and bad science from overriding Wisconsin protections for wild trout in the Prairie River Watershed. As per the example of the West Coast Salmon, to nip the problem in the bud is to head off damaging politics based on bad science early. In an excellent series has been enumerating the top reasons for all who are concerned about maintaining the health of the wild trout "canary in the cold mine" in Central Wisconsin:

Reason # 1 - because it is the right thing to do
"On April 14 in every county in Wisconsin the unique Conservation Congress spring hearings will be held. A disgruntled "retired" fisheries manager has been waging a personal war against the enlightened Wisconsin inland trout coldwater fisheries regulations. He has found a like minded group group of the kill more small trout contingent and managed to put to vote the regulations protecting five miles of the prime rearing habitat for native trout in Central Wisconsin's Prairie River. All Wisconsin citizens are eligible to vote by showing up at the hearings held in every county. The citizens of the surrounding states of Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois, which are generally referred to as Greater Wisconsin, are also eligible to vote on this advisory question. Vote yes on question 36."
This post may be too late to help HDW in this effort, as the vote is tonight in every county of Wisconsin. If you can, get there and vote, and make your voice heard. Locations for hearings can be found here.


SanFranLefty said...

This is great and depressing. When you look at the collapse of the salmon stock along with the spiraling price of grain and food and shortages of water, I feel like the fecal matter is getting closer to hitting the fan.

mw said...


Yeah - there hardly seems any point to dragging that poor canary down in the coal mine, if you are going to ignore the warning when it keels over.

Anonymous said...

In this week's episode of Boston Legal, Captain Kirk aka Denny Crain shows concern for the salmon in a way only a Republican could understand. RAC

Erik said...

Do you have any bigger images of the "If the salmon are lost smash the state" sticker? Or do you know where I could obtain one? I have been wanting one for some time, but "If the trout are lost smash the state" instead. Please email me if so.

mw said...

You didn't include your e-mail, and it is not available from your profile, so I cannot e-mail you. You can e-mail me from my profile if you like.

Unfortunately, I cannot help you regardless. I created the salmon badge to use as an illustration in this post by modifying the trout badge. I started with the small version, as it was all I could find at the time. So the image available here is the only one I have. Sorry.