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Deforestation and Its Effect on Salmon

  • person Erin Washer
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forest by river destroyed by humans

To say that we, the Popsie Fish Company, are grateful for our planet is an understatement. She continues to provide for us, protect us, and care for us in ways that we’ll never be able to completely repay. We give and we take. We fish sustainably so that we don’t take too much and don’t negatively impact our community and environment or leave disastrous and rippling effects on our ecosystem. 

Yet, within the last two decades, salmon populations have decreased. The lives of salmon depend on trees and vice versa – a delicate ecosystem that must be balanced and maintained. Deforestation is accelerating the decline in salmon populations. As a result, cultures are diminishing, delicate environments are at risk, and food pyramids are being altered. Along with these devastating changes to our environment, the quality of our own health decreases and the economy of the fishing industry is negatively affected.

Deforestation – what is it and how does it affect salmon populations?

Deforestation is the permanent destruction of forests to make other uses of land. The main cause of deforestation is for agricultural reasons, however, other things such as urbanization, timber harvest, and creation of cattle ranches are contributing factors. Certain areas, such as Oregon, Washington and Northern California, are world-known for their timber, and their economies thrive from the sale of lumber. In fact, approximately eighty-five percent of the West coast’s log exports and eighty-nine percent of its lumber exports come through ports in Oregon and Washington.

With that being said, Earth’s ecosystems are delicate and fragile, requiring a specific balance of elements and species. The largest ecosystem in existence, and arguably one of the most important, is the marine biosphere. And the health of this ecosystem depends on the interaction and interdependency between plant and animal life. Trees are essential to the health of the marine ecosystem. As National Geographic states: “Trees help perpetuate the water cycle by returning water vapor back into the atmosphere.” Therefore, the destruction of plant life through deforestation also leads to the destruction of animal life, as seen in the decline of salmon populations surrounding the Pacific Ocean of Washington, Oregon, and California. Deforestation in these regions has negatively affected the salmon population, and therefore, the fishing industry, which has far-reaching impacts on global biodiversity.

Salmon are an anadromous fish species, meaning that they hatch in bodies of freshwater and then migrate to bodies of salt water. They later return to their place of birth to spawn, and during this process, transport nutrients from salt water to fresh water. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, an adult chum salmon returning to spawn contains an average of 130 grams of nitrogen, 20 grams of phosphorus, and 20,000 kilojoules of energy in the form of protein and fat. Salmon usually die shortly after spawning, having used all their energy returning to freshwater, which requires a journey that may be several thousand miles long. “As the bodies of spawning salmon break down, nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients become available to streamside vegetation,” which includes… trees! “Using a combination of streams with mature trees and years of known salmon escapement, scientists found historical fluctuations in nitrogen levels taken from the yearly growth rings of trees show a positive correlation with the known number of salmon returning to spawn the previous year” (Post, 2008, p. 2). This research shows that salmon are a necessity to the continuation of tree life, as “one study concludes that trees on the banks of salmon-stocked rivers grow more than three times faster than their counterparts along salmon-free rivers” (Post, 2008, p. 3).

Likewise, salmon depend on trees. Trees provide shade on spawning streams, keeping salmon eggs cool. They provide falling leaves which house aquatic insects and therefore food for newly hatched salmon (also called salmon fry). And, they stabilize stream banks to slow erosion and protect clean water through their roots. With all this said, the destruction of one will lead to the destruction of the other, emphasizing the delicate balance of this ecosystem. Taking this into account, it comes as no surprise that the destruction of forests leads to the decline of salmon populations. Therefore, if the rate deforestation continues, it will be a major factor in the endangerment or even extinction of wild salmon species.

Salmon populations devastated by deforestation in the Columbia River Basin 

As stated earlier, deforestation widely occurs within Oregon, Washington, and Northern California. One of the most prominent examples of the impacts deforestation has had upon salmon populations is exemplified throughout the Columbia River Basin. Salmon population rates will never fully recover in these regions due to the negative effects of deforestation. For example, branching off the Columbia River Basin is the White Salmon River which documents the 108-year-old Condit Dam. In 2011, this dam was removed, and in 2014, the river is now running freely with restored habitats in the attempt to replant the former lakebed to recover returning salmon migrations (Large Dams in the Western United States, 2002, p. 2). In fact, chinook salmon are protected under the US Endangered Species Act (Brooks, et. al., 2012, p. 428 – 434). Four out of the five species of salmon are threatened or endangered within the Columbia River. Chinook salmon are a threatened species in the Lower Columbia River as of March 1999, and an endangered species in the Upper Columbia River as of March 1999. Chum salmon are a threatened species in the Lower Columbia River as of March 1999. Coho salmon are a threatened species in the Lower Columbia River as of June 2005. Sockeye salmon are not threatened or endangered within the Columbia River, but are endangered in surrounding rivers. Steelhead salmon are a threatened species in both the Lower and Upper Columbia River as of March 1998 and June 2009 (Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office, 2009). In summary, as trees decline – so do salmon.

So how does it all affect us?

The effects of deforestation on salmon populations are everlasting. In the end, our cultures, environments, health, and economies depend on the global diversity that salmon provide. When salmon suffer, so do we. Just as the salmon are dependent on the trees and vice versa, the health and livelihoods of the human population are also closely linked to these relationships.

Culture. The culture surrounding a seasonal commercial salmon fisherman differs from that of a subsistence Native American fisherman. For example, the Columbia River Basin represents fourteen different Native American tribes including Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Yakama tribes. All fourteen tribes heavily depend on salmon to maintain their way of life. In fact, several tribes had very successful fishing economies before 1855. However, as the salmon population declined and many of their traditional fishing sites were flooded as a result of cutting down trees and building dams along the Columbia River, their culture and tradition were put in danger (Large Dams in the Western United States, 2002, pg. 1). Today, the Native Americans in the surrounding area struggle to maintain their fishing industry due to the irreparable loss that they incurred. As we now understand, deforestation affects salmon populations. And declining salmon populations affect the fishing industry. Declining fishing industry affects culture. 

In comparison, the Yupik Eskimo are Native to the Egegik district of Bristol Bay, Alaska, and are subculture to the Alutiiq (Neal, 2015, p. 1). They continue to safely subsistence salmon fish in the Bristol Bay area due to an excess of laws and rules that regulate and protect the wild salmon population so that the decimated salmon runs of Oregon, Washington, and California may never occur in Alaska. Therefore, strict regulations, laws, and quotas are perhaps one of the only ways to recover the decimated salmon populations on the West Coast in order to preserve the remaining culture that local tribes continue to hold on to.

Environment. As discussed earlier, environments, like ecosystems, are extremely delicate and interconnected. Within every ecosystem, there’s a complex food chain. The destruction of plant life through human activity inevitably leads to the destruction of animal life. As trees decrease, salmon will decrease. As salmon decrease, the food pyramid alters, which in turn, has a rippling affect on the entire ecosystem. For example, salmon fry feed on aquatic insects. As salmon populations decrease, less salmon are available to eat these insects. Therefore, the aquatic insect population soars. In turn, seals depend heavily upon salmon as their food source. A decline in salmon populations means less salmon for seals to hunt. Therefore, the dependent seal population will starve. As the seal populations decline, killer whales and bears that feed on them will follow. Bears will become more aggressive now that two major food sources – salmon and seals – are decimated, and in theory, will also decrease in population. Killer whales will turn to other sources of prey, ranging from schools of small fish and turtles to baleen whales. The complex ripple effect of a decimated salmon population causes an unstable ecosystem and disrupted habitat by reducing biodiversity. Therefore, deforestation leads to dramatic imbalances in the marine ecosystems because of the complex role of food chains.

Health. The decimation of salmon populations are negatively impacting the overall health of the human population. As Bruggers writes, “we can be no healthier than the foods we eat, and the foods we eat can be no healthier than the environments in which they are produced. [Therefore,] human beings can be no healthier than the environments in which we live” (2013, p. 1). Did you know that Americans mostly desire to consume shrimp, tuna and salmon? (Alaska Economic Statistics, 2015, p. 1). But as explained earlier, deforestation will lead to a decline in salmon population. Personal health and the economy don’t often go hand in hand, but in this specific case – they do. Economics is the study of limited resources with unlimited desires. In this example, the limited resource is salmon, and the unlimited desires are those of Americans in the fishing industry. As the supply of wild salmon declines due to human causes such as deforestation, the demand remains constant. And according to the study mentioned above, this demand may be increasing. Because demand remains high, the industry must find other ways to facilitate a higher supply of salmon in order to control the prices of said salmon. As a result, the fishing industry has resorted to farming fish. Farming fish is the principal form of aquaculture, in which fish are raised commercially and unnaturally in tanks or enclosures. Because farmed fish do not sustain a natural life cycle beginning from a salmon fry to death by spawning, they do not transport the nutrients they carry as they travel from fresh water to salt water and vice versa. Farming fish creates the false impression of healthy and wild-caught salmon but this false impression is easily detected by quality. If you compare any wild-Alaskan salmon to farm-raised salmon, the quality difference is obvious. Not only is the quality different, but when caught in the wild, salmon are often bled immediately, resulting in a firmer meat containing less bacteria. When farmed, salmon are not bled so the bacteria is often still present. Therefore, according to Bruggers, “we can be no healthier” than the environment in which we produce malnourished, bacteria-filled, and unnatural salmon that, as Americans, we so much desire (2013, p. 1).

How do we move forward?

Deforestation is an instrumental part of the American economy. As expressed above, eighty five to eighty nine percent of the West coast’s log and lumber exports come from Oregon and Washington alone. To say that deforestation is avoidable is naïve and unrealistic. However, there are ways to lessen deforestation and its affects on declining salmon populations. One way to lessen deforestation but still produce the same, if not more, amount of lumber is through replanting trees. In fact, Tumac, a lumber company headquartered in Portland, Oregon has recently started selling and providing Fijian Genuine Mahogany to distributors and customers. This mahogany product is marketed as part of new program where for every one tree cut, three trees are replanted to replace it (Olsson – O’Neill, 2013). In this case, while every tree is cut for agricultural and lumber purposes, new trees are growing to provide for future generations. 

Furthermore, through the use of strict quotas and regulations much like the laws Alaska has created, harm regarding the salmon populations will be avoided. For example, within the Egegik district of Bristol Bay, AK, 100,000,000 salmon must reach escapement in order to swim upstream to spawn and die naturally. After 100,000,000 salmon reach escapement, opening tides are much more flexible and longer. With quotas and regulations in Oregon, Washington, and Northern California, salmon may have the ability to still be fished to increase the fishing industry, but also given the natural opportunity to spawn, and therefore provide for future generations.

In conclusion, the effects of deforestation upon salmon populations are everlasting. In the end, our local cultures, interdependent environments, personal health, and diner economics depends on the global diversity that salmon provide the human race. If salmon go down, so do we – our natural homes, our health, our finances – everything. 

Written by: Erin Washer

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