CORVALLIS - A new book published by the Oregon State University Press examines the plight of Pacific Northwest salmon through a collection of historic documents and modern-day commentaries exploring the cultural forces behind the fishes' decline.

"The Northwest Salmon Crisis: A Documentary History" is being released in time for Earth Week, April 15-21. The OSU Bookstore has planned a public reception for the editors and authors on Monday, April 22, from noon to 1:30 p.m. at OSU's Memorial Union.

The book, edited by Joseph Cone and Sandy Ridlington of Oregon Sea Grant, features documents and photographs dating back to the 1850s, clearly illustrating the early warning signs of today's salmon crisis.

Helping to put those documents in perspective are 11 commentators including:

  • Michael C. Blumm, director of the Northwest Water Law and Policy Project;
  • F. Lorraine Bodi, co-director of the Northwest office of American rivers and former counsel to the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency;
  • OSU historian William G. Robbins and anthropologist Courtland Smith
  • William L. Lang, director of the Center for Columbia River History.

The book is unusual, its editors say, for focusing on human actions - and failures to act - that have helped drive some wild salmon stocks to the brink of extinction. It chronicles not only the resource's decline, but also public and official awareness of that decline and efforts to reverse it.

Although the documents reveal instances of human greed, indifference and short-sightedness, Ridlington said, they also show "that the debate over salmon has never been a simple one of conservationists against exploiters."

Indeed, the book points out, a cannery operator, R.D. Hume, was among the first to sound the alarm more than 100 years ago about the already flagging resource.

"There is no question," Hume wrote in 1893 (in "Salmon of the Pacific Coast"), "but salmon were most plentiful before civilization had begun its work...when the sources of the rivers were unsettled and undefiled by the sewerage of the cities, the forests at the head waters still untouched by man, and the country yet in its natural state."

Both the historic documents and the contemporary comments reflect the complexity of the resource issues at stake - and the complex web of "solutions" that have been proposed over the years.

The book points out, for instance, that some biologists believe hatcheries can solve the salmon supply problem - while others blame hatcheries in part for the decline of wild stocks. And Native Americans, for whom the decline in wild runs has both spiritual and economic significance, have their own reasons for favoring certain kinds of hatchery production.

"By collecting these rich source materials - many of them obscure and until now known only to specialists - we've tried to contribute something new to the salmon debate," said Cone, whose own 1995 book, "A Common Fate: Endangered Salmon and the People of the Pacific Northwest," has received critical acclaim.

"The Northwest Salmon Crisis" is available from bookstores and libraries, or can be ordered directly from the OSU Press, Waldo Hall 101, Corvallis OR 97331-6407, 541-737-3166. The price of the hardcover book is $29.95. Mail orders must include $3.50 for postage.

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Tom Booth, 503-230-1900