The Shadow
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The Shadow

The Great Pause Week 81: Two Fish

The choice is between extinction of species and fast food.

There is a river on the west coast of North America that begins in arid plains and ends in temperate rainforest, a strange quirk The National Geographic called “upside down.” For 7000 years this area was the exclusive domain of Chinook-, coho- and steelhead-catching-peoples — the Yurok, Hupa, and Karuk along the coasts and canyons of the lower river, the Shasta in the long middle, and the Modoc, Klamath and Yahooskin in the dry highlands. They fished with weirs, basket traps and harpoons when the fish ascended from the Pacific Ocean to spawn in the tributaries of Upper Klamath Lake. They vied with brown bear and grizzly at the falls and eddy pools. They also hunted beaver, lynx and fox along the tributaries or brought down geese with bow and arrow.

Originally Ishkêesh and Koke, the name of the river today comes from the Upper Chinookan word /ɬámaɬ/, literally “they of the river.” It was renamed — or “christened” — “Klamath” by trappers from the Hudson Bay Company who hacked the Siskiyou Trail in the 1820s, followed shortly thereafter by gold-hungry Forty-niners. Within a matter of years, the plentiful beavers in the Klamath Basin had been mostly wiped out. Without their dams there was nothing to moderate floods and sustain the extensive wetlands. The loss of the beaver dams then began to cause severe erosion over a drainage of 16,000 square miles (41,000 km2), larger than Massachusetts and Connecticut combined. The ruthless peoples who eradicated the beavers in search of shiny yellow stones are today commemorated in the name of a popular California professional football team.

The native populations fared no better than the beavers. Ancient volcanic activity had sprinkled river beds with the yellow dust that drew in placer miners like bees to nectar. Villages full of men, women, children and infants were either hacked up or shot. Unprotected, in 1864, the tribes signed away 20 million acres and moved onto reservations.

“So many indigenous people have said to me that the fundamental difference between Western and indigenous ways of being is that even the most open-minded westerners generally view listening to the natural world as a metaphor, as opposed to the way the world really is. Trees and rocks and rivers really do have things to say to us.”

― Derrick Jensen, What We Leave Behind

Humpies and chum salmon reproduce close to the ocean and spend the least amount of time in freshwater. Sockeye, also known as redfish, can spend anywhere from 3 months to 3 years upstream. During the spawning phase the head and caudal fin become bright green and the body turns scarlet. The fry mature in lakes before migrating oceanward, although some remain. Land-locked populations are known as kokanee.

Coho live 3 to 5 years, about half of that spent in freshwater. Some populations may travel over 1000 miles upstream to spawn. Relatively rare, they make up only about 7 to 10 percent of the annual river catch. Chinook, also known as the king, tyee, or blackmouth salmon, are the largest, and even less abundant. They grow up to 30 pounds (13.6 kg) and 40 inches (102 cm).

Red-throated or “cutthroat” trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii var.) come in three versions. Two types spend their entire lives in freshwater and one is anadromous. Steelies — steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) also called coastal rainbow trout, silver trout, salmon trout, and ironhead — have winter runs and summer runs, leaving the ocean at up to 20 lb (9.2 kg) but not feeding while in freshwater, rather spawning quickly and returning. Moving briskly up and down stream, with some urgency, they have historically been idolized as a trophy game fish and have the greatest mortality during their migrations.

In 1919, the first timber crib dam raised Upper Klamath Lake by about 16 feet (5 meters) to permit steamboat passage and mail delivery to settlements along the river. More dams followed. The Bureau of Reclamation built them for irrigation. PacifiCorp and California-Oregon Power Company (COPCO) built them for power. Between 1908 and 1962 the salmon and steelhead run plummeted. Gone too was the population of bull trout that relied upon salmon fry. Coho recently made the threatened species list, not a distinction one might seek. When drought returned in 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney and Interior Secretary Gale Norton personally intervened to ensure water went to big farms regardless of tribal rights or the Endangered Species Act. Phosphorus, nitrogen, and biochemical oxygen demand from cattle runoff took its toll. Not surprisingly, the Klamath River had the largest fish die-off ever recorded. With the high water temperatures and low flows, a gill rot disease killed at least 33,000 salmon in September 2002 before they could reproduce.

Following that calamity, Klamath farmers twice sued the U.S. Department of the Interior for more access to irrigation water and both times were defeated by the superseding rights of the indigenous tribes. Then, miraculously, years of closed-door negotiations among farmers, tribes, fishermen, conservation groups and government agencies produced a 2008 management plan calling for the removal of four hydroelectric dams, starting in 2020. In 2013, the tribes’ water rights were enforced for the first time in what is known as a ‘Water Call.’ The Klamath Tribe called upon their in-stream water right, which was enforced by the BoR Water Master. This resulted in almost total upper-basin irrigation curtailment, and with it, massive losses to alfalfa, potatoes, onions, hay and cattle ranches.

“You’ve been given a promise by the United States government to provide you water,” Scott Seus, a third-generation farmer, says. “When they take that water off of that land, you have something that’s worth nothing. A piece of barren ground doesn’t mean a thing.”

“What if the point of life has nothing to do with the creation of an ever-expanding region of control? What if the point is not to keep at bay all those people, beings, objects and emotions that we so needlessly fear? What if the point instead is to let go of that control? What if the point of life, the primary reason for existence, is to lie naked with your lover in a shady grove of trees? What if the point is to taste each other’s sweat and feel the delicate pressure of finger on chest, thigh on thigh, lip on cheek? What if the point is to stop, then, in your slow movements together, and listen to the birdsong, to watch the dragonflies hover, to look at your lover’s face, then up at the undersides of leaves moving together in the breeze? What if the point is to invite these others into your movement, to bring trees, wind, grass, dragonflies into your family and in so doing abandon any attempt to control them? What if the point all along has been to get along, to relate, to experience things on their own terms? What if the point is to feel joy when joyous, love when loving, anger when angry, thoughtful when full of thought? What if the point from the beginning has been to simply be?”

― Derrick Jensen, A Language Older Than Words

Third generation or not, Seus is non-conservation farming in an environment that no longer produces the amount of water that it had a century earlier. Worse, when it rains, the runoff from Seus’s farm, and hundreds like it, flows into the upper lakes, carrying manure, topsoil, and fertilizer that builds toxic blooms of algae on the overheated water. The anoxic zones suffocate fish.

The tribes won the dam removal in the lower Klamath but 100,000 acre feet of water that had been promised national wildlife refuges in 2008 was later cut by Congress. This latest drought year the refuges will only get 10000 acre feet from rain, trapping migrant fish in mud flats and dooming some 100,000 birds to death by botulism in their molting stage.

The choice is between extinction of two species, sockeye and Chinook, and production of all-beef burgers. A continent away, Congress prefers its burgers. But lately, there have been warnings about a coming crisis that could endanger the flow of meat to the Capitol’s cafeteria. Drought — cattle require prodigious volumes of water — and heat waves, wildfire-and-flood-endangered pasturage, and declining soil fertility have been taking their tolls. A mid-2021 cyberattack on the nation’s second largest producer of beef, pork and chicken hit meat processing like a hurricane striking Gulf oil rigs and refineries. Supplies plummeted and freezers emptied. Coronavirus restrictions at meat processing plants — only about half of Tyson workers chose to get vaccinated — had already reduced throughput but restaurant demand was similarly constricted so the Covid effect was nearly a wash. Meat, poultry, fish and eggs prices today are up only 6 percent over a year ago and so the threatened meat shortage is not really all that big a deal in the near term. Long term, it will be.

NOAA Fisheries determined in August 2018 that five Pacific salmon stocks are now “overfished.” If we really want to address Coastal fish populations, according to think tank ‘RethinkX’, we’ll need to expand our options for seafood. By 2035, PFCA (precision-fermentation-cultured-analog) foods, some identical in flavor profile to salmon and steelhead, will be providing high quality protein 10x cheaper than animals at 100x more land efficiency, 25 percent more feedstock efficiency, 20x more time efficiency and 10x more water efficiency. This means that 2.7 GHa (10 million square miles) of land and a lot more ocean will become available for rewilding, leading to huge emissions reductions and drawdown. Do you or I want to be eating lab grown food? It won’t much matter what we want. With a world population at around 9 billion, we will.

Lab grown cultures of fake fish, made from roots, stems, seeds and leaves, and from starches drawn directly from captured CO2, should greatly benefit endangered wild populations by significantly reducing the overfishing and polluting of streams, lakes and ocean. The rewilding won’t end at the abandoned onion farms in Oregon and Washington, it will extend out into the deepest depths of the dark blue sea.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.

As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.

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“There are the good tipping points, the tipping points in public consciousness when it comes to addressing this crisis, and I think we are very close to that.”
— Climate Scientist Michael Mann, January 13, 2021.

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