Source: A Northwest Indian College production for NASA's Where Words Touch The Earth
This video segment features Elders discussing the decline in the local population of salmon, which are at the heart of the cultural identity of the Native American Lummi Nation of Washington State. One Elder recalls when fish were so abundant they were thrown overboard by fishermen and cannery workers who could not keep up with the supply. Ironically, today he is forced to buy salmon. Another Elder explains that threats to salmon, as well as to other food sources that have sustained his people throughout the years, are also threats to the Native American way of life and must be addressed in order to ensure the survival of the Lummi people. The video segment was adapted from a student video produced at Northwest Indian College in Bellingham, Washington.
Traditional dependence on natural resources for food, clothing, and shelter is a significant part of the cultural identity of the Lummi Nation, one that connects them closely to the natural environment. Residing along the northwest coast of Washington State, the people of the Lummi Nation have traditionally collected one of their primary survival resources—salmon—by a technique called reef netting. Until a generation or two ago, the waters in which they fished were full of wild Pacific salmon. Today, salmon are extinct or imperiled in many of the waterways they've been known to inhabit.
Salmon populations face several serious threats, including pollution, habitat destruction, overfishing, and climate change. The downward spiral of salmon populations is troubling for several reasons. Primarily, salmon serve as a keystone species in the ecosystems they inhabit. This means that their physical presence is critical to the overall ecological diversity and health of the ecosystem. Not only are the fish a main food source for a variety of predators, including birds and mammals, but their decomposing carcasses also provide essential nutrients for plant growth. Without salmon, other populations in the ecosystem would collapse.
There are 7 species of salmon in the Pacific Northwest, and nearly 40 independent breeding populations. They thrive in cool, oxygen-rich water (the ideal conditions for developing embryos) and clean gravel beds. However, when these conditions are compromised, the sensitivity of these fish to environmental changes can lead to steep population declines. Some common factors leading to population decline include water quality issues related to agricultural runoff and industrial pollution, freshwater diversions, and dams; habitat loss, which can rob young salmon of the insects they need to eat; and overfishing. Salmon hatcheries and fish farms have also been identified as a contributing factor, responsible for introducing weaker genes into the gene pool of wild populations through interbreeding, and for spreading parasites and disease, which then infect wild populations.
Increasing evidence shows that salmon populations may be challenged by climate change, because it interferes with salmon migration patterns. Warmer ocean temperatures cause the fish to migrate farther north to sea. This results in a longer journey back to their freshwater spawning grounds. When they do return, many of the fish are of reduced body size, as more energy was required to cover the longer distance. In addition, warmer river temperatures add stress to the fish during their upstream journey.
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