Like many Washingtonians, I grew up fishing. Starting at the age of six or seven my father would take me out for a two-week fishing trip each year at Neah Bay. We’d chase after cod, king salmon and halibut in our fishing boat, but the real joy was just being out on the water with my dad and brother Les, sharing nature’s wonders and, with a little luck, its bounty.
When I was elected to Congress 30 years later, the health of our fisheries had already taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Many of the classic salmon runs my dad, Les and I fished had been severely depleted. There was no shortage of contributing factors that had taken their toll and salmon numbers had plummeted.
Fortunately, all was not lost. I was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1976 at a very heady time, on the heels of the enactment of our nation’s great conservation laws. The Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act had both passed Congress only a few years earlier, which reduced smog and helped cleanse our rivers.
But one law in particular stood out because of its boldness and vision: the Endangered Species Act. Passed by wide bipartisan margins in Congress in 1973 and signed into law by a Republican president, the goal of the ESA was simple: conserve imperiled plants and animals and the intricate natural web that sustains us all. It truly was a common-sense law built on a foundation of foresight and concern for future generations.
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It’s also the law that helped save salmon in the Northwest. For centuries abundant salmon runs provided sustenance for the people in our region. As the country industrialized, recreational and commercial salmon fishing became a major contributor to our regional economy, providing a livelihood for thousands of families and feeding millions. But without adequate protections, salmon suffered and so did other animals in the food chain.
For example, orcas rely on salmon as one of their primary food sources and our orcas nearly disappeared as salmon declined. Bears and other predators that feast on salmon making their way upstream also witnessed declines. The people of the Northwest suffered as well. As the salmon population plunged, jobs were lost; processing plants closed and salmon became an unaffordable luxury for the average family.
But it is no small coincidence that this year, on the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, many of our salmon populations have returned in record-breaking numbers. More than a million king salmon have made their way past the mouth of the Columbia and a number of depleted salmon runs have turned the corner and are making the slow and steady climb back.
Why are the salmon doing so well? Because the Endangered Species Act works and decades of conservation efforts implemented under the law are paying off. As a result of the ESA, everything was put on the table for review and all of the major factors contributing to the decline of salmon over the decades, from habitat to hatcheries to dams to harvest levels were scrutinized and improved because of the requirements of the ESA.
There still is work to do, but the ESA is working for the Northwest’s salmon populations. But that’s just one of many great wildlife success stories of the Endangered Species Act.
Thanks to the law, we now have bald eagles flying from coast to coast, gray wolves and grizzly bears are starting to return to the North Cascades and much of our remaining old-growth forests still stand tall with the roster of old-growth dependent species that make them so unique.
Let’s not kid ourselves. There are many serious threats still looming large on the horizon. Air and water pollution still threaten to make a comeback as Congress considers weakening our environmental laws. Development pressure is as strong as ever. Some of our most iconic animals are still threatened with extinction. And climate change threatens to overwhelm even our best laid plans.
But with the ESA, at least we know we have an effective tool for preventing the needless loss of imperiled plants and animals.
I’m retired from Congress now and I have more time to go fishing with my family. And whenever I do, I’m reminded of what’s at stake. Salmon, orcas, grizzlies and others animals still need our help in order to survive.
But on the 40th anniversary of the ESA, I am hopeful. Efforts to restore our salmon fisheries and recover the health of our rivers are heading in the right direction. And I see tremendous passion and dedication in the next generation of wildlife conservationists.
But we all need to recommit ourselves to the next 40 years of endangered species conservation so we don’t fall back into the traps of old. We need to stand strong against those who would weaken the ESA and undo all the progress we have made.
And we need to embrace the same optimistic foresight our leaders showed in passing the ESA 40 years ago so our children’s children will be able to cherish memories of salmon fishing with their dads as well.
Norm Dicks was the U.S. representative for Washington’s 6th Congressional District from 1977 to 2013. He retired at the end of the 112th Congress.