Review: King of Fish – The Thousand-Year Run of Salmon by David Montgomery

Most Americans know that salmon are facing a lot of pressure, but very few understand the issues from David Montgomery’s unique perspective. King of Fish puts a different twist on a familiar tale. By taking a very broad geographical outlook on the issues facing salmon, Montgomery helps us to understand what works and what doesn’t to help protect these fish. As a geologist, his ideas and opinions on how humans can protect rivers, and thereby protect their occupants, are insightful.

The book begins with a natural history of salmon and the rivers in which they thrive. Conjure up an image of a river in your mind. As it turns out, though, the river you are likely imagining is nothing like the rivers of yore. Before humans intervened to make rivers safe for navigation, huge old growth forests changed the rivers. Trees fell and formed logjams, creating pools and side channels. Prehistoric rivers wove back and forth through their floodplains with the shifting logjams. Now, rip rap lines the shores, the floodplains are dykes and developed, the logjams are cleared safe navigation, and the old growth forests cut for timber.

Salmon have a few basic needs: clean, cool water, gravel to spawn in, appropriate habitat to hatch and develop, and enough adults that escape dams and fisheries to return upriver and spawn.

Montgomery goes on to explain how salmon thrived under native “management” through a culture that ensured those needs were met. Furthermore, salmon persisted in the Old World, despite gradual changes in habitat and fishing pressure, because of legal protection and land ownership that prevented overharvest. However, he tells how as we entered the modern era, industrialization and demand changed the rivers and killed the salmon faster than they could adapt.

Hopping across the pond to New England, we learn that even after salmon stocks were depleted in much of Europe, Atlantic salmon were still abundant in the New World. However, as colonies grew into states and provinces, the needs of the local population came before the needs of the salmon. Dams blocked the rivers and formed convenient spots to seine entire runs of salmon. Fisherman often worried more about nets breaking under the strain of so many fish than whether they would have an adequate catch that day. However, just as in Europe, the combination of habitat destruction and tremendous fishing pressure decimated salmon stocks.

As the now-familiar tale unfolds on the Pacific front, salmon hatcheries and farming have become a possible panacea for the destruction of wild salmon runs. Perceived as sources of unlimited salmon for market, Montgomery patiently documents how neither hatcheries or farms have met their intended purpose. In nature, mortality among juvenile salmon is almost overwhelming. This natural selection process ensures that only the fittest fish compete for limited ocean resources and return upriver to spawn. Salmon hatcheries circumvent this process, filling the rivers with large, aggressive fish that are not as genetically diverse as true wild salmon. Over the long run, hatcheries have suceeded not in protecting wild salmon, but replacing them with hatchery fish less fit for overall survival than their wild brethern.

According to Montgomery, salmon farms are also contributors to the decline of salmon. “The ocean is a hard place to maintain a fence,” he asserts. Despite assurances to the contrary, farmed salmon have a documented history in Europe and New England of spreading parasites and disease to wild stocks, and escaping to interbreed and in some cases replace local native fish.

Finally, the book tells us how dams and the interests backing them have repeatedly won out over the interests of wild salmon. The utterly depressing record of legal protection for salmon, violated time and time again, left me feeling all but hopeless in the fight to preserve the wild runs.

In his conclusion, though, Montgomery presents a few very compelling ideas for how humans and salmon can co-exist peacefully. He explains that the rivers we have come to accept are not natural, and that we need to accept that rivers own their floodplains. By building right up to riverbanks, straightening channels, and eliminating the prehistoric logjams that created ideal salmon habitat, we have also created, in effect, massive flood-prone drainage ditches. He avows that in some areas, it would have been less expensive in the past to purchase the entire floodplain of a river than to repeatedly pay for flood damage and reconstruction. By subsidizing development through flood control and rebuilding efforts, we are supporting development that should not exist.

I found this book to be a challenging read as compared to Salmon Without Rivers, but much broader in it’s analysis of the issues affecting salmon past and present. While Montgomery also failed to provide direct action for the reader, he does lay out a clearer picture of the steps that society may take to protect wild salmon. Ultimately, I would recommend this book and will likely reread it as I learn more about Pacific salmon and the ecosystem they support.


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