A national consumer campaign to save wild salmon will launch in Washington today, as about 200 chefs from restaurants in 33 states call on Congress to pass laws to restore river habitats and tear down massive hydroelectric dams that have decimated salmon species along the Pacific coast.
The initiative, led by celebrity chef Alice Waters of Berkeley's Chez Panisse, follows last year's federal shutdown of 88% of the commercial salmon fishing along 700 miles of coastline in California and Oregon.
Marine scientists said the closure was necessary to allow salmon to spawn in the 260-mile Klamath River where competition for water among farmers, utility companies, Indian tribes and commercial fishermen has led to confrontations. The shutdown, however, led to commercial shortages.
Now, with the opening of the spring fishing season, officials fear that new restrictions could further affect the availability of wild salmon, which is in growing demand as a healthier, tastier alternative to farmed fish.
"Wild salmon is one of the unique, authentic heritage foods of the Pacific Northwest," the chefs wrote in a letter to Congress to be released today. "It represents perhaps our country's last great wild meal."
Until now, battles over salmon fisheries have played out mostly on the regional level. The new campaign seeks to focus national attention on the overall threat to salmon species, as it is playing out in the Klamath and Columbia river basins and in Alaska, where environmentalists say that a still-plentiful fishery in Bristol Bay is threatened by a proposal for a giant gold and copper mine.
"Salmon is the canary in the cave," said Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena), whose North Coast district lost more than $60 million during last year's fishery shutdown. "If salmon are dying, the whole watershed is in trouble."
As chefs lobbied on Capitol Hill and prepared to host members of Congress at a salmon feast tonight, Thompson added, "The foodies are recognizing this is important.... Wild-caught salmon are better for you than farmed salmon. Real fish don't eat pellets, and they don't need antibiotics. They are just natural."
But a campaign to tear down four dams on the Lower Klamath River and four on the Snake River in Washington state faces keen opposition from farmers who depend on irrigation water and barge transportation, and from electric companies and industries such as aluminum plants that depend on low-cost power.
Licenses for four Klamath dams have expired and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is considering whether to renew their permits.
David Kvamme, a spokesman for PacifiCorp of Portland, Ore., which owns the dams, said his company prefers building fish ladders to tearing down dams, and it disputes environmentalists' contention that the ladders won't help salmon move upriver.
"We have 1.7 million customers getting electricity that produces no emissions," Kvamme said. "States want to cap greenhouse gases, and they want renewable resources. Hydropower from Klamath dams is a renewable resource."
Removing the dams, and the 20 million cubic yards of sediment behind them, he added, could incur "potentially billions of dollars of future costs."
In the Northwest, dams along the Columbia River and its tributary, the Snake, "have turned the river into a series of warm, stagnant lakes, blocking natural migration and devastating critical habitat," said Therese Wells of Save Our Wild Salmon, a coalition of conservation and fishing groups.
About $8 billion has been spent on fish ladders and other salmon recovery programs in recent decades, but with little result.
Last month, a federal appeals court ordered the Bush administration to rewrite its latest salmon recovery plan for the Columbia and Snake rivers and accused federal officials of "manipulating the variables" in assessing the danger to salmon.
As part of the new campaign, Trout Unlimited, a national environmental group, has launched a Web-based petition to gather signatures for a "Salmon Consumer's Bill of Rights."
"Individual consumers who care about wild Pacific salmon and steelhead recovery haven't really had their own voice over the clamor of governments, special interests" and nongovernmental organizations, the group posted on its website.
Specifically, the campaign is calling on Congress to enact the Salmon Economic Analysis and Planning Act to study removing the four lower Snake River dams. And, in California, Trout Unlimited noted that federal licenses for 150 dams are up for renewal by 2020.
According to the organization, "the dams often divert 95% of the river's summer flow and have inadequate or absent fishways.... This is literally our once-in-a-lifetime chance to bring them up to date."
Recent federal legislation requires grocery stores to label fish as either farmed or wild-caught. In the last 25 years, farmed salmon has grown from 2% of the world supply to more than 65%, according to the World Wildlife Fund. In the U.S., 80% of salmon consumed is farmed.
Scientists have found that farmed salmon in pens can infect nearby wild salmon with parasitic lice and various diseases.
The national campaign has adopted as its slogan, "Vote with your fork."
Wild salmon may cost more than twice as much as farmed salmon, but consumers must buy it in grocery stores and order it in restaurants if it is to survive, organizers said.