Poster for "The Breach"
The Breach Release Year: 2015 Running Time: 82 min Director: Mark Titus Watch the trailer

When I sat down to watch “The Breach”, direct­ed by Mark Titus, I had no idea how rel­e­vant and uncan­ni­ly time­ly this 2015 doc­u­men­tary would be.

Poster for "The Breach"
The Breach
Release Year: 2015
Run­ning Time: 82 min
Direc­tor: Mark Titus
Watch the trailer

Titus was inspired to make this film after a life­time in which wild salmon had held a cen­tral role.

He grew up fish­ing, catch­ing his first salmon with the aid of his father at age two, then spent most of his 20s lead­ing fish­ing tours in Alaska.

After read­ing a book chron­i­cling some of the chal­lenges fac­ing wild salmon, he was inspired to share what he had learned through “The Breach.”

I, too, grew up around salmon, as I sup­pose many folks from the Pacif­ic North­west have, and was sur­prised by how much I did­n’t know when watch­ing the film.

I was born and raised in Pull­man, on the Snake Riv­er. School field trips took me to the fish lad­der at Low­er Gran­ite Lock and Dam, and a salmon hatch­ery in Ida­ho that was a cul­mi­na­tion of a whole unit we did on salmon in sev­enth grade.

Con­cerns about salmon habi­tat were always in the back­ground of polit­i­cal and envi­ron­men­tal dis­cus­sion, but nev­er pierced my con­scious­ness as a seri­ous­ly crit­i­cal issue. Talk about salmon was ubiq­ui­tous, and salmon seemed to be ever-present, that I thought it could­n’t pos­si­bly be that much of a problem.

I was wrong.

“The Breach” takes us from Mon­tana through Ida­ho, Ore­gon, and Wash­ing­ton, up to Cana­da, and final­ly to Alas­ka. Along the way we learn about the five types of Pacif­ic Salmon (anoth­er detail I nev­er paid much atten­tion to before) and the unique­ly genius — but del­i­cate — life­cy­cle of salmon.

The life of a salmon begins in a creek bed where its moth­er laid hun­dreds of eggs. When it has devel­oped enough that it is ready to tran­si­tion from fresh­wa­ter to salt­wa­ter, it starts its jour­ney down stream towards the Pacif­ic Ocean.

In the ocean it will feed and grow until it is time for it to return back up the very same riv­er, through the trib­u­taries to the small stream were it was ini­tial­ly hatched. There it will spawn, and die.

Along its jour­ney, and even after it has died, the salmon feeds many oth­er ani­mals and plants. Steven Haw­ley, author of “Recov­er­ing a Lost Riv­er” and fea­tured in the film dis­cussing the cleanup of John­son Creek in Port­land, notes that one hun­dred and thir­ty-sev­en dif­fer­ent crea­tures depend on salmon in one way or another.

Bruce Brown, author of “Moun­tain in the Clouds,” the book that first awak­ened direc­tor Titus to the issues fac­ing salmon, explains that all the rain we get in the Pacif­ic North­west strips nutri­ents from the land and runs it into the water.

Salmon col­lect all these nutri­ents when they’re in the ocean feed­ing, and then bring them back when they come back to spawn.

“They are the prin­ci­pal way that nature returns nutri­ents to the land,” says Brown.

Dr. Car­ol Ann Woody likens rivers and trib­u­taries to cap­il­lar­ies in bod­ies, dis­trib­ut­ing nutri­ents through­out the ecosystem.

One large chal­lenge to this com­plex life­cy­cle is the dams along rivers that pre­vent salmon from get­ting back up to their spawn­ing grounds.

The film looks specif­i­cal­ly at the long fight to remove two dams on the Elwha Riv­er. The effort start­ed in 1976, and was the begin­ning of the larg­er move­ment for dam removal through­out the Pacif­ic Northwest.

The riv­er that I grew up on, the Snake, is the largest trib­u­tary of the Colum­bia. It has four dams, active­ly block­ing thou­sands of miles of healthy salmon habi­tat upriv­er in Wash­ing­ton and Idaho.

Before fish can even get up to the Snake, they face four dams on the Colum­bia itself. At every one of these eight dams, salmon die on their way out to the Pacif­ic and strug­gling to get up to their native streams on the trip back.

One “solu­tion” to the prob­lems of dimin­ished salmon pop­u­la­tion, par­tial­ly due to dams, is hatch­eries. These fish are raised in cap­tiv­i­ty until they’re old enough to be released. But then hatch­ery and wild fish com­pete for food and habi­tats. Hatch­ery fish can also weak­en the gene pool if they inter­breed with wild fish.

Anoth­er dan­ger to wild Pacif­ic salmon is the prac­tice of farm­ing Atlantic salmon in net pens.

“Every sin­gle migra­tion route for wild salmon is now blocked by these feed­lots,” says biol­o­gist Alexan­dra Mor­ton, who first came to the Broughton Arch­i­pel­ago in Cana­da in 1984 to study whales.

But audio devices that the fish farms installed in the 1990s to scare whales away from their pens were so effec­tive that whales have nev­er returned. Mor­gan then switched the focus of her research and activism to salmon and net pen farms.

These large net pens are essen­tial­ly like feed­lots which exist on land for pigs and cat­tle, but are in the open water, where they pose mul­ti­ple risks for native salmon. The Atlantic salmon con­tained in the pens can har­bor dis­eases, such as sea lice, which are then passed on to the Pacif­ic salmon pass­ing by in the open water.

Waste from these fish also piles up under­neath the net pens, dam­ag­ing the seabed under­neath. The biggest risk of all is the pos­si­bil­i­ty that these non-native Atlantic salmon (which are for­eign to Pacif­ic waters), could wreak hav­oc on the marine ecosys­tem of Cas­ca­dia were they to escape the net pens.

There have been small escapes before, but just over two months ago there was a com­plete col­lapse of a net pen in Wash­ing­ton waters, releas­ing 160,000 Atlantic salmon near Cypress Island in the San Juans, where native Pacif­ic salmon pass by on their way back to rivers to spawn. Any inter­fer­ence with the migra­tion of our native species could have dis­as­trous con­se­quences for species that are strug­gling to increase their pop­u­la­tion to a more sta­ble and sus­tain­able level.

If the Atlantic salmon are car­ry­ing dis­ease, the breach could be even more cat­a­stroph­ic. Native Amer­i­can tribes and oth­er fish­er­man have been work­ing hard since the escape to catch as many of the escaped fish as pos­si­ble, but about 100,000 are still unac­count­ed for and mak­ing their way to rivers across the region.

As NPI Vice Pres­i­dent and for­mer Alaskan salmon fish­er Diane Jones wrote in Sep­tem­ber, we must make changes to bet­ter pro­tect our native salmon. A good start would be not allow­ing any new net pens or the restock­ing of ones cur­rent­ly in our waters; even bet­ter would be ban­ning them entire­ly, as Alas­ka and Cal­i­for­nia do, and can­celling con­tract and per­mits for those cur­rent­ly in operation.

If this inci­dent was­n’t bad enough news for wild Pacif­ic salmon, just last month it was report­ed that Trump’s head of the EPA with­drew an Oba­ma-era pro­pos­al to pro­tect an area in Alaska’s Bris­tol Bay that is at risk of seri­ous eco­log­i­cal dam­age from a pro­posed cop­per mine project.

The deci­sion, hand­ed down in May, was announced just hours after the CEO of Peb­ble Lim­it­ed Part­ner­ship, the min­ing com­pa­ny, met with the EPA.

The sto­ry of Bris­tol Bay and the threats posed by the pro­posed Peb­ble Mine are also empha­sized promi­nent­ly in “The Breach.”

Bris­tol Bay is home to one of the last healthy salmon fish­eries in the world. The habi­tat there is most­ly undis­turbed and unpolluted.

This is pri­mar­i­ly due to the fact that salmon are pro­tect­ed as a resource in the Alas­ka State Con­sti­tu­tion, so fish­ing must be done respon­si­bly and sustainably.

Over one half of the sock­eye salmon in the world come from the Bris­tol Bay fish­ery. The fish­ery is home to 14,000 jobs a year and adds $1.5 bil­lion to the econ­o­my. There’s also a fair amount of sport fish­ing, and a large pop­u­la­tion of sub­sis­tence fish­ers, many of whom are Native American.

Salmon have been an inte­gral part of the lives and cul­tures of many Native Amer­i­can tribes for untold gen­er­a­tions, and Bris­tol Bay is one of the few places where that key part of their liveli­hood and her­itage has remained rel­a­tive­ly intact.

The Bris­tol Bay fish­ery and all that it con­tributes and rep­re­sents is now at risk if this pro­posed cop­per mine were to be green­lit and constructed.

The pro­posed open pit mine would be over three miles wide and 4,000 feet deep, locat­ed in the head­wa­ters of Bris­tol Bay salmon coun­try. Over nine­ty-four miles of streams would be lost, as they would be used in mine operations.

There is a high like­li­hood that sul­fu­ric acid and met­als from the mine could get into the water­ways, which would have con­se­quences for many local species, not just salmon. Cop­per above cer­tain lev­els is tox­ic to salmon, destroy­ing their sense of smell. A salmon’s sense of smell is crit­i­cal, as it is their smell that leads them back to their home rivers and streams where they spawn.

The min­ing com­pa­ny claims that they can safe­ly con­tain the “pond” of tail­ings behind a dam (the term pond is used loose­ly, as it would be massive).

How­ev­er, there have been mul­ti­ple fail­ures of tail­ings dams in the last few years, includ­ing one that was designed by the same peo­ple who designed the pro­posed Peb­ble Mine tail­ings dam. The dam at the Peb­ble Mine would be six times taller than the one that failed in British Columbia.

The tox­ic mate­r­i­al from the mines must be stored in per­pe­tu­ity, yet in British Colum­bia and New Guinea, tail­ings dam fail­ures occurred after only a few years. These facts make it hard to believe that Peb­ble can safe­ly con­tain the tox­ic mate­ri­als for­ev­er, and the eter­nal risk of fail­ure or leak­age, and the dam­age it will cause to Bris­tol Bay and all the species that inhab­it it, are not worth what­ev­er amount of cop­per would be extract­ed from the mine.

The Breach teach­es us that salmon fish­eries are a frag­ile resource fac­ing many dan­gers. It’s up to us to put this knowl­edge to work to save our wild salmon.

What can do we do? What actions can we take to make a difference?

First, don’t buy farmed Atlantic salmon.

Sec­ond, con­tact Gov­er­nor Jay Inslee, Com­mis­sion­er of Pub­lic Lands Hillary Franz, and your rep­re­sen­ta­tives in the Wash­ing­ton State Leg­is­la­ture to let them know you sup­port a com­plete ban of Atlantic salmon farm­ing in Washington.

Third, sup­port the Unit­ed Tribes of Bris­tol Bay, the Alas­ka Wilder­ness League, and allied orga­ni­za­tions fight­ing the Peb­ble Mine project in Alaska.

And final­ly, as prob­a­bly goes with­out say­ing, speak out against the Trump regime’s assault on our plan­et at every turn, and demand that impor­tant deci­sions impact­ing the envi­ron­ment be made based not on pol­i­tics or prof­it, but on science.

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