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Reel Time Fishing Northwest

Mark Yuasa covers fishing and outdoors in the Pacific Northwest.

November 24, 2011 at 6:11 PM

History of salmon dates back millions of years

Here’s an article I came across by Naomi Klouda with the Homer Tribune that tells an interesting story which dates Pacific salmon back to prehistoric times.

Fossil records show a family tree of Pacific salmon dating back millions of years. One weighed 300 pounds, sprawled 10 feet long and was named the Saber Tooth due to its protruding fang-like teeth.

Its branch fell from the family tree into extinction before the last Ice Age, about three million years ago.

Salmon inhabited their streams before humans evolved, David R. Montgomery told a packed audience Thursday night at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitors Center.

It was an appreciative audience of school children, parents, teachers, biologists, fishermen, conservationists, journalists and a few politicians – all interested in a favorite local subject: the salmon. Montgomery couldn’t have been more popular than a prom queen at a homecoming dance.

Montgomery, who won a MacArthur genius fellowship in 2008, is an expert on the history of salmon, if not through an unorthodox route. He’s a geologist, interested in rocks, soil, the rise of mountains and the fall of riverbeds, all of which relates to a fish who evolved in the upheavals of millennial landscaping. He is a professor of earth and space sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he leads the Geomorphological Research Group and is a member of the Quaternary Research Center.

In Homer, he gave talks on the history of salmon, based on research published in his book, “King of Fish: The Thousand Year-Run of Salmon.”

Though he identifies himself as a geologist, Montgomery said he grew interested in salmon as part of the geologic story.

“When you look at salmon in geologic time, you come to see it maps the changes in the landscape, the evolution of mountain ranges. It relates to the drainage of basins and in topography.”

Fossil records show Pacific salmon evolved into separate species from an ancestor salmon that lived 20 million years ago. Even the Atlantic salmon is an offspring of this ancestor. But while the Atlantic salmon saw few evolutionary transformations, he said, the Pacific salmon sprouted many, eventually settling into five species of salmon and four types of trout. The reason for this follows the differences in how the landscape of North American and Europe formed after the great ice age. Europe stayed relatively stable while North America saw huge upheaval in the rise of its major mountain ranges.

“North America saw radical change. The whole western edge got crinkled up in this time period as salmon evolved … There is a causal connection between the two. The radiation of salmon habitat in space (in lakes and steepened rivers cutting through newly formed mountains) parallels salmon fossil records in the geological changes,” Montgomery said.

One fossil of a two-foot sockeye in the Skokomish River of Washington state showed all the major life history traits were established by one million years ago. Sockeye salmon were the most recently evolved by at least a million years.

Illustration courtesy of Ray Troll David R. – Montgomery uses this illustration to show the evolution of salmon from a single ancestor 20 million years ago. The Atlantic salmon stems from this original tree, as well as western trout, including cuthroats and steelhead. The only salmon now extinct was the Sabertooth Salmon who stretched 10 feet long and weighed up to 300 pounds. He fell from the tree about 3 million years ago.

Over millions of years, salmon survived in tremendously calamitous conditions.

“They thrived in landscapes shaped by floods, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and natural disturbances,” he said. “Since at least 9,300 years ago, 20-25 percent of the Columbia River runs were harvested and still they did well. That’s sustainable. They can handle human predation and thrive. But their status today leads to different conclusions.”

They might have survived tremendous challenges over millions of years, but today, most have shown they can’t survive man’s landscape changes.

Alaska has the highest number of original salmon runs, at 106 percent.

“This is because salmon habitat in Alaska is still intact,” Montgomery said.

The next highest run is British Columbia, at 36 percent of its original runs. In Washington and Oregon, only two percent of the original salmon runs remain. What he calls the four H’s determines the health of salmon runs: harvesting, habitat, hydropower and hatcheries.

History adds a fifth H to the discussion, because the changes in salmon history shows human-made changes to river systems in Great Britain, New England and the Pacific Northwest.

“Is Alaska going to be the fourth time this story will be repeated?”

In Great Britain, the science of protecting salmon was already in early understanding by the year 1030 when the first law is found on the books of King Malcolm II of Scotland. He closed season for salmon fishing to protect the “old salmon,” that is, the spawners.

Richard the Lion-Hearted created another law in 1190 or so. Rivers must keep a corridor open to salmon traveling upstream, he decreed “so as if to permit a well-fed three-year-old pig to stand in the river.”

Even the damage of hydro projects on running salmon was known. King Robert I in 1318 forbid wheels that would impede salmon progress up a river.

By the time of New England’s settlement, thorough laws were in effect to protect salmon runs, but they couldn’t easily be enforced. Hundreds of mills on rivers and other endeavors had killed off the Atlantic salmon runs there by the 19th century.

Montgomery showed his “extinction map,” veins of rivers on the Eastern seaboard where the rise of what became modern society made for the demise of salmon.

The Pacific northwest repeats the story, as the Columbia river sees 18 dams built between 1934 and 1967. Sweepers come in to “clean” rivers of branches, trunks and other debris that provided fish habitat and side nursery channels for fry.

Montgomery didn’t address the possible impact of a Pebble copper and gold mine or PacRim’s proposed Chuitna coal mine. But audience members asked how do these fit in with his understanding of salmon’s ability to survive?

About Pebble: “Let me put it this way,” Montgomery said. “It could be the worst thing for Alaska salmon since the Ice Age.” In New Guinea on the Fly River, a copper-gold mine touted as state-of-the art erupted tailings in an earthquake, scattering toxins miles down the river.

On coal mining through 11 miles at the Chuitna: “I don’t know of anyone who has been able to tear up and restore 11 miles of salmon stream. You can’t reconstruct as well as God did it in the first place.”

Montgomery is the author of “Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations,” “King of Fish: The Thousand-Year Run of Salmon,” and the forthcoming “The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood.”



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