The tides of change recently brought in some very good environmental news. The Pacific Northwest salmon are back. Rivers in Oregon and Washington were choked last year with the biggest salmon runs in fifty years. The reason: a long-known, predictable, twenty-five-year cycle in Pacific Ocean currents. We may now gratefully forget the many recent claims that the salmon were being driven to extinction by logging, dams, pollution, irrigated farming, or global warming. Yet another of the major eco-hoaxes of our time is winding down to its inevitable conclusion.
In late August of last year, the Portland Oregonian reported that more salmon and steelhead trout had climbed Bonneville Dam’s fish ladders than in any year since the dam was built, in 1938—even though the salmon run still had weeks to go. The paper reported that “even the most imperiled wild stocks now protected by the Federal Endangered Species Act” were being seen in large numbers. The run of endangered Snake River chinook was five times as large as in recent years. Oregon’s salmon fishery manager, Steve King, said, “The ocean is [now] alive with bait fish,” that support the salmon.
Actually, anyone could have predicted this recovery, as I did two years ago in a column for Bridge News. I’m not a fish expert, just an agriculturalist who values the high yields from irrigated farms that the environmental activists wanted to destroy when the fish population was dwindling. At that time, I stumbled across a paper by Victor Kaczynski, an Oregon fish expert, documenting a twenty-five-year cycle in Pacific Northwest salmon numbers. Kaczynski wrote that the currents in the Pacific Ocean seem to deliver large amounts of plankton and bait-fish to the Oregon and Washington coasts for about twenty-five years at a time. During the good years, Pacific Northwest fishermen enjoy their big catches—and the salmon numbers decline in the Gulf of Alaska to the north. For the next twenty-five years, the salmon food slants northward, and the Alaskan fisheries prosper while the Pacific Northwest moans about its salmon going extinct.
Kaczynski showed me the catch data. They clearly indicate that Pacific Northwest salmon were abundant from 1900 to the 1920s, then scarce until the mid-1940s, then abundant until about 1977, then scarce again until 2001. Fishery experts Nathan Mantua of the University of Washington and John McGowan of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography confirmed the validity of the salmon cycle. Excited about this good news, I called my cousin Suzy, who owns an irrigated farm in Idaho. Suzy said that local fishermen had told her about the salmon cycle years earlier, and she noted that this awareness was one reason her community opposed the ongoing eco-activist campaign to tear out the Snake River dams.
My column on the salmon cycle, published August 13, 1999, generated more hostile mail than anything else I’ve written—and I’ve stepped on many toes over the years. The fisheries scientists warned me that I would anger both the eco zealots and the fishery researchers, who regard “salmon extinction” as their ticket to big research budgets. They were right.
But if the eco groups really didn’t know about the twenty-five-year cycle—a natural environmental phenomenon and a reality that is obvious to anybody who actually looks at the data on Pacific Northwest salmon—how could they feel knowledgeable enough to offer the public advice on fish management? And if the eco activists did know about the cycle, how could they, in good conscience, publish assertions that human activities were destroying the salmon? The New York Times advertisement that they ran in 1999, predicting the utter extinction of Snake River salmon by 2017, totally disregarded the truth about the salmon cycle, which was plain for any interested party to see. The author of the 1999 prediction, consultant Phil Mundy, said just after the ad ran that he had passed his paper around to a few local biologists who’d been “generally favorable.” Mundy said that he couldn’t follow the traditional peer-review process because the ad sponsors had given him only five days in which to do his analysis!
The Oregonian, which had pushed the local salmon decline scare to the hilt, is telling its readers that this year’s big salmon run is attributable to good river flows, improvements in fish passage, and “an upturn in ocean conditions, where salmon spend their adult lives feeding before returning to spawn in fresh water.” The region has certainly improved its fish ladders and dam turbines to protect young salmon smolts—but these improvements were mostly made in the 1970s. The big salmon runs we’ve just seen have resulted from the fully predictable twenty-five-year cycle in salmon nutrients out in the ocean. Only one thing can make the Pacific Ocean “full of bait fish,” and that’s nature itself.
Responding to the willful ignorance of the eco activists and their accomplices in the press, lawmakers were on the verge of ordering the destruction of several multimillion-dollar dams that provide important supplies of electricity, navigation, and irrigation water in the Pacific Northwest. The public didn’t know about the twenty-five-year nutrient cycle, and the eco groups took advantage of that ignorance to pursue an anti-development agenda.
Fisheries experts likewise knew the truth but kept silent, to protect their own funding. Had they acknowledged that the salmon were in the down years of a natural nutrient cycle and that they’d be back without any human intervention, the biologists wouldn’t have gotten any more federal grants to study salmon reproduction. Of course, neither the eco zealots nor the grant-seeking researchers will be held accountable by the media or the politicians, both of whom benefit greatly from these types of scares.
We owe the environmental movement of the past a huge debt of gratitude for getting the nation, states, and communities to start saving wildlife and cleaning up the lands and waterways decades before they might have gotten to it on their own. Today, however, the environmental movement is huge, well funded, and politically powerful. Hence, the salmon hoax is not an isolated incident: influential activists within the eco movement routinely engage in such scare tactics in order to maintain their funding and power. Both the public and the environment suffer as a result.
American consumers have endured huge increases in lumber costs because the eco activists have said that logging was endangering the spotted owl. The truth is that although spotted owls do like to nest in old-growth forests, they also need new-growth forests in which to hunt wood rats. Hence, moderate tree harvesting is good for the spotted owls. But because of the activists’ misinformation campaign, the world is replacing the wood it doesn’t cut in fast-growing, sustainable forests in Oregon and Washington with lumber from species-rich tropical forests. The rural communities in the Pacific Northwest that used to earn their livings in the timber industry are being starved out, while tropical wildlife species are being driven extinct by logging that should be entirely unnecessary. This is hardly “thinking globally.”
Other eco activists recently told us that deformed frogs were the “canaries in the mine,” warning us of pesticide pollution that would cause widespread amphibian extinctions—and maybe our own. Testing, however, showed that the frogs are being deformed by a natural parasite that burrows into their leg joints when they’re tadpoles. We were also told that pollen from genetically engineered corn would kill off the monarch butterfly. Field-testing now shows that such corn actually helps the monarch, by reducing the amount of field-sprayed pesticide.
The environmental movement owes the public honesty, integrity, and professionalism in its assessments of our wildlife problems and potential. But first, those who have spread these and other false claims owe us an apology.