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Sustainability is about ecology, economy and equity.- Ralph Bicknese

How Salmon Created Seattle

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Good news everyone: it’s almost salmon season! And, even better, this summer a huge wave of  pink, or humpback, salmon is coming through the Puget Sound. This upcoming event got me thinking about salmon’s presence in our culture. Though this distinctive fish is nearing dangerously low levels today, it still continues to play an important role — one that it has kept for many, many years.

Salmon have played an important part in Seattle’s history since before recorded history. Fossil evidence shows that salmon have populated the waters of Washington State for over a million years. And, remarkably, they seem to have traveled in similar migration patterns to their contemporary descendants.

Salmon play significant roles in ancient mythologies from all around the world. Irish folklore tells of a Salmon of Wisdom who grants knowledge to those who eat him. Welsh mythology calls salmon the oldest and wisest animal in Britain; one carries two of King Arthur’s knights to rescue a child-prisoner. And Norse mythology tells of Loki transforming himself into a salmon to escape the other gods, until Thor catches him by the tail.

But the Native American mythology of the Pacific Northwest puts salmon in even higher regard. These fish are what first drew tribes to Washington’s cost, giving them a stable source of food. The Kwakwaka’wakw tribe tells of their gods giving them salmon along with other essentials of nature: fire, sun, tides. They also told stories of gigantic salmon, which The Seattle Times says proves true: “Fossil records show a family tree of Pacific salmon dating back millions of years. One weighed 300 pounds, sprawled 10 feet long and was named the Saber Tooth due to its protruding fang-like teeth.” I’d say that is large enough to ride.

Native Americans timed their seasonal movements with the salmon runs, making them a literal guiding presence. Salmon were a staple in their diets, and became ingrained into their culture and their daily lives — a legacy we’ve inherited to this day.

Although our life don’t revolve around salmon anymore, these pink fish still impact our culture and livelihoods. They’ve remained a major export of Seattle for over a hundred years, and they still form a large part of our city’s identity.

Seattle first became a center of trade during the Yukon gold rush in the late 19th century. Many adventurers wandered north to seek their fortunes. But while gold was scarce, Seattle’s supplies were not. Salmon was a main ration of the gold rushers, and fish sales boomed enough to make Seattle a large city.

But they are in danger of disappearing. That same Seattle Times article claims that “In Washington and Oregon, only two percent of the original salmon runs remain…the four H’s determines the health of salmon runs: harvesting, habitat, hydropower and hatcheries.” Right now, those first three are a major threat to Pacific salmon populations.

The Northwest Green Home Primer says that salmon are an identifying feature of the Cascade region, which ranges from Northern California to British Columbia. But the book also fears for salmon’s future: “although salmon are generally revered as beautiful creatures, good food, and a source of industrious livelihood, the fact is that wild salmon runs are decreasing drastically, as a result of human activity.” The authors call for “Taking an environmental approach to development” to protect salmon habitat, and keep these iconic fish from disappearing forever.

Learn more about Seattle’s salmon fishing season and restoration efforts.

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Author: Sara Kenning

Sustainability Assistant at Seattle Pacific University's Office of Facility and Project Management

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