NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, November 12th, 2017

Documentary Review: “The Breach” sounds the alarm about threats to our wild salmon

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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