Salmon and the Geologic Story

November 18, 2011 By: Benjamin Clary

In his book King of Fish: The Thousand Year-Run of Salmon, David Montgomery offers a different perspective on the history of salmon.  Montgomery, who is a professor of earth and space sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, is a geologist who is “interested in salmon as a part of the geologic story.”  In her piece in the Homer Tribune, Naomi Klouda writes:  “They [salmon] might have survived tremendous challenges over millions of years, but today, most have shown they can’t survive man’s landscape changes.”

According to Montgomery, the evolution of the Pacific salmon into five species of salmon and four types of trout is connected with the significant geologic changes that occurred in North America during the Ice Age.  “There is a causal connection between the two.  The radiation of salmon habitat in space (in lakes steepened rivers cutting through newly formed mountains) parallels salmon fossil records in the geological changes.”

The book also addresses the history of the science of protecting salmon.  Montgomery unearthed a law created by Richard the Lionheart in 1190 which required a salmon river be open “so as if to permit a well-fed three-year-old pig to stand in the river.”

Ultimately the health of salmon runs depends on the “four H’s,” according to Montgomery: harvesting, habitat, hydropower and hatcheries.  While Alaska’s runs are 106 percent of the original salmon runs, the next highest is 36 percent in British Columbia.