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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Point of No Return, Part II: Salmon in the City (continued)

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood's report continues.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(A boat engine starts)

CURWOOD: To see how salmon really might survive in a highly industrialized environment, I strap on mud boots for a boat trip up Seattle's biggest river, the Duwamish. My guide is a youthful, energetic biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Curtis Tanner.

TANNER: Off to our right, there's this one hill slope, and then about a mile, a mile- and- a- half over to the east there, you can see the other hill slope. That is the boundaries of what was once the river valley. So you can imagine that we were once in a large river valley, that there was once a meandering channel, a lazy little river if you will, kind of going back and forth from valley wall to valley wall. About twelve miles in the lower stretch of the river here of meandering channel.

CURWOOD: How has it been shrunk, it's been straightened out like --

TURNER: It's been straightened out, so we basically took all the kinks out of the twelve miles of channel, took it down to about five miles of what they now call a navigable waterway. They deepened it, and they filled in the wetland to create industrial land.

CURWOOD: And not just any industrial land. This is the heart of Seattle's heavy industry. There are cement factories, a steel mill, ship yards, one of the West Coast's busiest ports, and the world's largest airplane manufacturer: Boeing. All of them generating billions of dollars in economic activity, in the wetlands where millions of salmon once thrived. The lower Duwamish isn't just any stretch of river, either. It's a vital salmon estuary, where the juveniles are supposed to fatten up before heading to sea. This is also where they make the critical transformation from a freshwater to a saltwater fish. That's why Curtis Tanner is here. The Duwamish uplands are still productive salmon habitat, but the estuary? It's a mess.

TANNER: To write off the estuary, in this case, is to write off an entire watershed. I don't think that we have the moral authority, if you will, to write off an entire watershed, much less the legal ability. The Endangered Species Act doesn't allow us to say well, we're going to write off that system and go save fish someplace else. We have a responsibility to save fish everywhere.

CURWOOD: Some say it's hopeless to spend limited resources on salmon in an industrialized river like this, but Mr. Tanner hopes to prove them wrong. He's pioneering an effort to restore these estuaries. Right now the project is focusing on reclaiming tiny scraps of abandoned industrial land.

(An engine slows down)

CURWOOD: Our boat begins to slow as we reach one of the pilot projects, a tiny patch of green beside a small tributary. (To Tanner) This is like night and day. I mean, we're looking at something that looks reasonably natural. That could be someplace far, far away from the city.

TANNER: Yeah, you can. It's a little bit of an oasis here on the river. (Slapping water)

CURWOOD: Instead of concrete, the river bank here is a natural mud flat. Instead of junked cars and abandoned boats, the shore is lush with tidal saltmarsh vegetation.

TANNER: This sedge that we're looking at here is, jeez, what would you say? Three, maybe four feet high?


TURNER: Looking pretty good. This is really the fuel of these kinds of habitats. It's this plant material that breaks down and becomes small little bits and pieces of detritus or decaying vegetation that really fuels the food web here in this system.

CURWOOD: In other words, this is salmon food.

TANNER: This is next year's crop of salmon food.


CURWOOD: It's taken four years and $300,000 of public money to restore this single acre of shoreline. But already, hundreds of salmon are using the site, one of more than a dozen postage stamp-sized projects created by the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, and local volunteers.

(Engine starts up)

CURWOOD: It's too early to tell how many salmon might be saved through projects like this, but biologist Curtis Tanner feels they're worth the effort. They demonstrate that urban restoration is possible, and they've fostered support for even bigger projects on streams in Seattle neighborhoods that flow into the Duwamish. Headed back down the river, Mr. Tanner explains that there is an intangible benefit from his work as well. Like Washington Governor Gary Locke, he feels that wildlife habitat can make the city livable.

TANNER: People do live and work down here. And I think it's important to provide green space in people's back yards. Just having some green in an otherwise urbanized area is very important.

CURWOOD: So the salmon might save people?

TANNER: Let's hope so.

CURWOOD: Biologist Curtis Tanner of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, one of several agencies working to restore wild salmon runs in urban areas of the Pacific Northwest.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Our report on wild salmon in the city was produced by Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick. Our series Point of No Return: Salmon and Society in the Pacific Northwest, continues next month as we examine the impact of commercial fishing on salmon populations. You can hear other installments in the series on our website: www.loe.org.



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