Column: Old-time ichthyologist’s fish story throws light on climate change

  • Shawn Braley illustration

For the Valley News
Saturday, February 09, 2019

In the late 1950s, my summer job with the Oregon Fish Commission, which is now part of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, focused mainly on checking salmon and steelhead for tuberculosis. It seemed a humble, apolitical task at the time, unlikely to illuminate a federal government’s paralysis in the face of climate change 60 years later.

This story begins on the mighty Columbia River and a fork of the Willamette River, moves to the wide Missouri, and arrives at my recent epiphany here in the Connecticut River’s Upper Valley.

The fish with tuberculosis were hatchery-raised salmon and steelhead, probably infected from the unpasteurized, ground-up cattle viscera the fingerlings were fed before they headed out to sea. The Fish Commission decision-makers wanted to know how many salmon returning to spawn were infected.

Diagnosis required collecting fish livers from canneries on the Columbia River, noting the species for each liver on plastic bags, putting tissue smears on glass slides, staining them, and then carefully — well, often interminably — searching for glowing red TB bacilli with a microscope.

By 1960, as a college senior, I wrote a scholarly report about this for an interdisciplinary science colloquium at Park College, perched on bluffs above the Missouri River. My title, “Those Dammed Salmon,” revealed my conviction that tuberculosis was not really the problem.

There’s a thing about dams: It’s very expensive to build fish ladders to allow salmon to return to their spawning grounds despite the dam. When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built Dexter Dam on the Middle Fork Willamette River, where I did some of my research, they built a holding pond below the dam. There salmon could hang out until they were ready to be spawned artificially.

Warming water temperatures and reduced oxygen levels in the holding pond led to diseases more quickly lethal than tuberculosis.

People who raise fish often call the disease I remember best “cottonmouth.” Serious, budding ichthyologists like me called it “Chondrococcus columnaris” in those days, and it seemed to do most of its damage by clogging gills.

We “treated” it by spraying the pond with Malachite green, a dye that turned the pond, unsurprisingly, a beautiful, deep green. This was comforting to a biologist aide like me, but we lost many salmon in that pond before they were ready to reproduce.

So far, this is a tale of one young ichthyologist’s discovery that even warming water temperatures like those now predicted for climate change can have destructive effects on salmon populations, including hatchery-raised salmon. What hit me recently, however, as I gazed out on the Connecticut River with a perspective no longer young and never ichthyologically sophisticated, is this: For a country’s leaders to ignore growing evidence of an ecological and economic disaster that will surely accompany climate change is nothing short of criminal.

Michael Scherer wrote recently in The Washington Post of three Democrats likely to compete in the presidential primaries for 2020 who have decided to highlight climate change, the “issue once considered a political liability, especially in Midwestern swing states won by President Trump.”

Washington’s Gov. Jay Inslee, as well as Vermont’s Sen. Bernie Sanders and Oregon’s Sen. Jeff Merkley, all plan to make our need to respond to the changing climate a central issue in their campaigns.

Others too have shown enthusiasm for the campaign called the “Green New Deal,” backed by newly elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of New York, and her supporters. Instead of seeing in our need to do something about climate change a crusade requiring great economic sacrifice, and probably a loss of jobs, as Republicans have claimed for years, the Green New Deal assumes serious efforts to address climate change will cause dramatic job creation in low-income areas and greater economic justice. In addition, the Sunrise Movement, which has been staging protests in our nation’s capital aimed at overcoming our government’s failure to respond to climate change, urges Democratic candidates in 2020 to turn down donations from fossil fuel companies.

Little did I think when I worked with salmon in the middle of the last century, observing the damage caused by mildly increased water temperatures, that this problem could become widespread in our natural environment due to global climate change. We’ve had years now to consider the problem, its causes, and how to deal with it.

But now the people who could work toward a solution have been hurt by one shutdown and are bracing for perhaps another, and our government leaders are preoccupied with a wall.

Our modern day Nero and his enablers fiddle while civilizations slowly burn.

Bill Nichols lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at Nichols@Denison.edu.