Salmon: Running the Gauntlet
Interview with Jim Norton

Filmmaker Jim Norton discusses the making of Salmon: Running the Gauntlet. Once among the most productive salmon fisheries on the planet, the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest today is marked by the alarming absence of the region’s staple fish. Many salmon populations are already extinct or endangered due to overfishing, habitat loss and dams, making their future in the region unclear. Here, Norton discusses what interested him in telling their story, and the complex reality of our efforts to save them.

What first interested you in the story of the Pacific Northwest salmon?

One of the great parts of this project was the opportunity to come back around to where I first heard the story – from Jerry Myers, who appears in the film and tells pretty much the same thing he told me shortly after I started guiding in Idaho. I was young, beginning and ending each day in a sleeping bag in the wilderness, well insulated from the burdens of conflicting education or experience… everything seemed perfect to me. And then one afternoon Jerry and I were fishing together, far up a tributary creek of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. The Salmon is part of the upper vasculature of the Snake and Columbia River systems, an alpine womb which once produced as many Chinook salmon as anywhere on the planet. We lingered a long time at a place called the “salmon pool,” and Jerry started telling me what used to be there. It was actually a little frustrating at the time; it was hard to honor his more complete version of a landscape I knew as a form of ideal.

As guides, so much of our work involved the language of the pristine, the iconography of wildness, the gin clear water of Salmon Rivers and Redfish Lakes. Although the narrative was very much part of my life, much of that richness is just an anecdote for the generation who arrived in the Pacific Northwest after about the 1970s. It’s a story someone else tells us. Our timeline of memory begins just as that of abundant salmon was ending, and with it the biological and cultural nourishment on which so much depended. My experience as a guide, and the connection I am making now as a full-time resident, initially had no lens through which I could see working on rivers, facilitating what has essentially become a leisure pursuit, as a cultural remnant of once more robust and varied interactions with the land and water. So my interest in this story was originally very personal, an attempt to explore the paradox that a lot of the Pacific Northwest lives within: strong identification with the idea of a natural and cultural heritage derived from abundant salmon, but having just missed out on the heritage itself.

What were you most surprised to learn about salmon and/or the process and effects of harvesting them during the making of this episode?

Without question, I was most impressed by the degree to which we took the original myth of protection through production and never looked back. The scale of the infrastructure that has developed around providing alternatives to salmon swimming up and down streams – the billion dollar “mitigation economy” – is simply staggering.

I was also surprised by the degree to which everyone I met on the ground was genuinely engaged in doing the most they could for salmon, appropriate to the context in which they were working. The hatchery programs are trying to produce as many healthy juveniles as they can; the biologists in the hydropower system are trying to pass as many live fish as possible around the dams; the pilots of the juvenile fish transport barges and trucks are checking stress levels in the tanks; the predator chasers were really trying to reduce the number of salmon eaten by sea lions and terns. Telescoping in on each vignette, it looks like a lot of people doing everything possible to solve their piece of the problem. It’s when you open up and show the accumulation of those contexts that things get ugly, and arguably absurd.

Can you explain the significance of the federal salmon policy decision in the Columbia River Basin that will happen this spring? What is at stake?

In short, the listing of 13 Columbia River salmon and steelhead species as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act requires the government to develop a plan, or biological opinion (“bi-op”), for their protection and restoration. Both the 2000 and 2004 salmon plans were rejected by the courts, meaning that the current administration’s recently submitted plan is the latest in over a decade of modification, argument, and litigation. Technically, the bi-op covers the management of the hydropower system on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. An imminent decision from the federal judge should determine whether the most recent iteration of the proposed plan is legal. Of course, whether our approach to salmon management is actually sufficient for their protection, let alone their restoration, isn’t determined in a courtroom. When Jerry Myers is kept awake by the sound of splashing salmon in Indian Creek, when David Duncan can crouch by the river and find fire in cold stone, when the Tribes are nourished in the many ways derived from abundance…then and only then will we know we’ve done well.

In the episode, it is said that, “If the fish were in any worse shape, they wouldn’t be savable, if they were in any better shape, people wouldn’t care as much. This is the time.” Do you agree with that? Do things have to get bad enough for people to care enough to make a change?

I agree this is the time for a radical re-evaluation of the goals and approach to salmon recovery. Many people have cared, a lot, about declining salmon populations for over a hundred years. Unfortunately, sometimes a response to declining resources is an even tighter grip on the agents of that decline. Even as the situation becomes more desperate, it becomes harder and harder to make big changes because everything feels more fragile. In this film, we wanted to get beyond the documentation of now familiar insults to nature and examine the role, and legacy, of how we have tried to save.

Do you see the salmon situation as proof that human ingenuity is no match for Mother Nature?

No. That proof has been offered too many times before, in too many different ways. The story of the Columbia is, perhaps, an affirmation of that maxim. The modern salmon situation does express interesting components of the relationship between human ingenuity and nature. Something we seem to have lost is the appreciation that the abundance we’re now working so hard, at such cost, to wrestle out of the Columbia is the default condition of the place. Abundance is not something we’re going to tease from the river by being clever. The problem here is shifting baselines. Diminishing abundance determines each new generation’s opportunities on the Columbia; these present opportunities become our memories of a collective past, and together they mark the boundaries of what we imagine it could be again. The thrilling potential of restoration, then, isn’t just about more fish – it’s about expanding our capacity to imagine, increasing opportunities to live a life in the story of our choosing.

How do the Tribes’ relationships to salmon fit into the picture going forward?

The additional levels of complexity and intensity inherent to the tribes’ relationship to this story are humbling. Since no 50-minute program can cover everything, we wanted to focus on the Euro-centric, techno-industrial mitigation component of this story. Of course we make reference to the issue as it concerns the Tribes, but they are still very much in the process of working it out for themselves. I hope they find ways to share their stories, because those stories are so terribly underrepresented in the dialect of salmon science and conservation. There are many expressions of what we know about salmon other than what can be plotted, shaded, extrapolated and correlated, including things we can measure but also things we can’t. This information has been part of indigenous communities for millennia. Comprised of replicated observations over many generations of time, these knowledge systems are not only inherently scientific; they represent our only connection to the deep time on which most ecological systems operate.

Equally meaningful, they also encompass the culture of respect that evolved among people as a function of profoundly intimate experience with the specific environment around them, not only as a form of ritual but as an application of effective governance. Information is shared as a narrative covering many aspects of life in the watershed, not exclusively packaged as data sets. We should be maintaining and promoting this paradigm, where the results of formal research are incorporated into a broader sense of place that includes indigenous understanding and oral histories.

There are so many complicating factors for the Tribes within the context of their separate and collective histories, the struggles they have had getting their treaty rights affirmed legislatively and judicially, how that struggle has influenced their considerations about what to fight for and how, what kind of relationship they will have with commercial fishing and hatcheries. As it concerns the nature and extent of salmon recovery, what the Tribes decide is good enough will have a big effect on what happens with salmon in the Columbia.

What message do you hope audiences will take from this episode?

First, we hope audiences will simply celebrate salmon themselves – their truly extraordinary life history and why they stubbornly remain icons of wildness, resilience, and abundance. Certainly, we hope this episode will contribute to an appreciation of their role in stitching together oceans and continents, estuaries and alpine meadows, coastal rainforests and high deserts. By extension, people should come away with an understanding of why their decline is so consequential on so many levels.

Also, we hope audiences will explore the original assumptions that informed our approach to managing salmon – and how committed we remain to trying to make that story work despite 150 years of evidence that those assumptions might be leading us astray. At incalculable cost, we constructed a reality out of our illusions and have forgotten which is which. Maybe it’s time for a new story.

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  • Gary in marin

    Salmon need to choose their mate and mixing milt with eggs is just making them weaker.
    They have senses of smell that enable them to choose the best mate for them to stay strong genetically.

    Take down some dams and quit trying to interfere with breeding or they will all be gone soon, and forever.
    Hubrid vigor is needed here.

    Ihave fished for them 26 yrs off Marin coast in Ca and since 04 have noticed lots more lice and a sicker looking adult fish. 90% of the fish here are hatchery and they are getting weak!!!

  • Jon

    “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall.” Ronald Reagan did not ask to change East Germany’s election process, or it’s leaders, or other DETAILS. He said, “Tear down that wall.” Once the wall was down, the details worked themselves out automatically.

    Ronald Reagan’s quote about the Berlin Wall could well apply to salmon. Our decades long debate on salmon is about DETAILS:
    1. Shall we build this hatchery?
    2. Will we release that many smolt?
    3. How many fish will be barged on which dates?

    Regardless of whether political intentions were noble or not, many people made countless decisions about the details of salmon recovery. Similar to our military, the “boots on the ground” did the best they could to carry out the orders from above. But now it is time to re-access the POLITICAL choices we have made in the past.

    In the past we thought we could mitigate the damages to our wild salmon caused by overfishing, habitat destruction, dependence on hatcheries, and most of all, dams. We have been intoxicated by our BOGUS plan to play god:
    1. We could streamline nature.
    2. We could have farms to hatch fish.
    3. We could strategically release the baby fish, and and then wait for them to return as adults.
    4. We can keep our dams AND have the fish.

    After 150 years, it is time to re-assess our BOGUS plan to play god. Hatcheries do what hatcheries do. They breed inferior fish. Worse, they contaminate the gene pool of wild fish whenever hatchery fish breed with wild fish. We also steal eggs from wild fish to rejuvenate hatchery fish because hatchery fish lose all vitality in three generations.

    Perhaps the greatest danger of hatchery fish is what they cover up. If hatchery fish are the solution, the end result will be, literally, a dead end. Hatchery fish create a TEMPORARY illusion that salmon are recovering. But the fact is WILD salmon populations continue to decline. If we lose the wild salmon, the hatchery salmon will likely collapse without the genetic rejuvenation of the wild fish.

    Here in Idaho sockeye salmon run the longest gauntlet of all. Idaho sockeye swim upstream for 900 miles and climb 6000 feet in elevation. Along the way, they must pass 4 huge dams on the Columbia River plus 4 more on the Lower Snake River. We want our wild salmon back! How do we get them back?

    Fishery biologists are almost unanimous in their answer. If the 4 Lower Snake River dams were removed, Idaho’s wild salmon would recover. We would not need to know the details of hatchery operations because hatcheries would NOT BE NEEDED.

    It is time to restore the river to be the stream of life that Mother Nature intended. it is time to “Tear down the Lower Snake Dams” to restore our wild salmon. It is the honorable thing to do — honorable to the people of Idaho, the Pacific Northwest, the American culture, and to the treaties we signed with the Native Americans.

  • Katmai Jack

    Prayer for Lost Salmon by Katmai Jack (katmaijack@gmail.com)

    Mother and Father of this Cosmos blue and green, be with us today in these gravel streams

    and hear this prayer for our brethren, the salmon, who wander your oceans in search of old truths.

    With your Sun, direct them. By your Stars, guide them and with your Moon,

    light them a shimmering trail home

    through the darkness to the streams of their conception and our youth.

    Make us like them that we may one day fathom the obligations and joy of a life fulfilled.

    When we are weak, fortify us with their strength. When we are doubtful, inoculate us with their passion

    and when we lose hope, revive us with their natural courage to go on.

    Most of all, grant us their vitality and vision that we, too, may become swimmers and find our way out along

    the cyclic pathways of Eternity set down long before we ever tasted salt water or feared rough seas.

    Reunite us with our scaled-souls. Then weave us back into the lost mysteries of this Northwest coast so

    that together we might recapture the simple magic of these evergreen forests and clear, blue streams

    where we first met. This we ask in the name of all your creatures, Amen.

    Snake River Reds by Katmai Jack

    Snake eyes, sockeye! Guess it had to come to this. We paid the price that Nature charged for a powered
    up Northwest. It’s not your fault. Don’t blame yourself. It couldn’t have been helped.
    Columbia’s tamed. The flood’s contained. We regret your fry got scalped by churning, steel turbines that ground
    through night and day sparking surplus voltage for Californ-i-a. Our kilowatt rate is lower now than your population count but we did flood-out the spears you faced at the Indian fishing grounds.
    Wy’east will not forget you, though, and Klickitat has memorized years when sockeye did swim free under Northwest summer skies long before the first white wanderers from Astor and HBC trapped for furs and felled the trees to manifest destiny. It’s been going on for centuries.We should have seen the trend. The spark of their beginning was the beginning of your end. But let’s not say “Au revoir” too quick. We’ll still do our level best to revive your precious species in blue incubator trays that the Hydro Boys will finance with millions of federal bucks. We will turn back the Hands of Time with new biologyand luck. So trust us, please. It can be done. We’ll re-calculate it all and in a hundred years or so, no one will recall these unfortunate miscalculations made long ago in time when Science was Religion and Engineering was divine.
    No, nothing’s really free in life. Progress has its price. We’re sorry it turned out this way. We had to roll the dice.

    Salmon Time by Katmai Jack (katmaijack@gmail/com)

    Synchronize your heartbeat with the full moon tide. Inhale the scent your home stream leaves behind.
    Then harmonize the seasons that divide your life. Now you’re living on salmon time!
    There’s a rhythm when you’re living on salmon time. There’s a feeling you’ve been through this all before.
    There’s a certainty that life revolves and never ends when you see the world through salmon eyes.
    So let dreams of immortality decide your course. Trust your instincts and your lateral line.
    Balance your pectorals with your dorsal fin then leave your dread of death and ruin behind.
    The Creator of the sockeye and the Bering Sea, the Sculptor of the Cosmos, by design,
    handcrafted us to swim upstream and spawn new lives then to raise ‘em up on salmon time.
    Our lives serve out their purposes like cohos’ do. Our fates are finned and scaled then streamlined.
    Sure as Winter follows Fall, scour out your fears then all that once seemed common turns sublime.
    From the gravel we all travel to a destiny ordained by old Devonian tides.
    What we’ve become can be undone and made brand new, if we’ll just go back to salmon time.

    Chignik Lagoon by Katmai Jack

    Summer winds whisper down Shelikof Strait when the salmon swim home from the sea.
    They swim fast and farther past Cape Chiginagak, Kujulik and Yantarni where a powerful force
    keeps them on course as they wander the tide rips and soon they boil past the rapids that lead to cool
    grass flats in the shelter of Chignik Lagoon.
    On the ebb, they descend to the main channel bottom where the scent of the fresh water’s strong.
    They lie quiet for hours ’til the flood tide fires their savage passion to spawn.
    Up the Diego they sprint, up the Little Island Channel, past the King Hole, the Horseshoe and Hume’s.
    Blue backs on the move, they rush to their doom in the lakes above Chignik Lagoon.
    Twenty miles from the ocean, surrounded by tundra, in the shallows they quiver and shake
    giving life to the gravel. For three years they’ve travelled for this moment in an arctic lake.
    But now all seems senseless: the struggle, the passion, their bodies decaying maroon.
    Immortality bound, they’ll die and drift down to cool grass flats in Chignik Lagoon.
    So the cycle’s complete. New lives will repeat the ordeal the dying endured.
    The rhythm’s maintained, the season’s the same. Why, then, pass quickly through Chignik Lagoon,
    Old Friend? Why pass quickly through Chignik Lagoon?

  • Vira Burgerman

    THANK YOU PBS !!!! You are my favorite station broadcast!!!!!! This Mermaid will forever cheer you on!!!!
    Thank You Jerry Myers !!! I wish to do what you have done .This mermaid loves you and will inspire to follow in your fin steps.I will get your movie and play it at the Mermaidfest here for all to ponder on.
    Thank You Jim Nortan Great Interview! I am hoping to carry your messege to people here on the Russian River. Mermaidfest in Oct . Here in Sonoma County is all about Salmon and habitat restoration. We have a lot of restoration projects going on. I will pass your information on.Sorry it took this long .
    Thank You Gary in Marin .Comments so many in this world need to hear 90% hatchery fish ,WE HAVE DONE THESE FISH WRONG.
    Thank You Jon, I’ve heard rumers that some dams are going to be taken down.I wish to follow this and help it along. !!!!
    THANK YOU Katmai Jack , Your words should be put into song. TEARS RUN DOWN MY FACE AT HOW WE DID SO WRONG!!! BLESS ALL OF YOU AND PLEASE CARRY ON!!! Your being heard! KEEP IT STRONG!!!
    I would love to meet you all!!!

  • Kent Smith

    So, no concern at all about all the people that also depend on that water for drinking and washing and irrigation and power, screw them, they should all move somewhere else, as long as you (and you only) have your wild river to enjoy the rest of us can go pound…well i’m surprised you are having a hard time finding support for your position, really…bite me just doesn’t quite express my true feelings

  • adam

    hatcherys work like life support and there going to be around as long as the dams nebey longer but there fish are just as good as wild fish because bugs in the wild are also at the surface so the smart salmon feed on the bottom and those are the ones that make it back. we need both but hatcherys aren’t bad there the saviors but we need to recover the wild salmon to

  • Erik Kolakowski

    Kent, you are probably one the most unlearned people I have ever heard comment on such an important issue. There are other ways to get water, power and irrigation. Without the salmon the whole northwestern ecosystem is screwed and that means you too. Not to mention a valuable food source for us as much as nature, and never mind the Native Americans. They apparently have not earned there right to the salmon like they should. Wake up people! When there’s nothing left but barren forests, empty rivers and soil without proper nutrients there is no life. Take down the damns. Please everyone, take time to do the research. It’s all right in front of you. This is hardly about having your wild river back. This is about restoring a irreplaceable resource to this planet which is something that everyone should understand.

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