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NATURE: Salmon: Running The Gauntlet

Airs Wednesday, May 23, 2012 at 8 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: A mature Sockeye salmon about to be netted and taken to Eagle Hatchery.

The Columbia River Basin once teemed with young salmon heading toward the ocean and mature salmon returning to their home rivers and streams to spawn. Now, many salmon species of the Pacific Northwest are extinct, and thirteen, including the iconic sockeye salmon, are currently endangered.

An Upper Middlefork Salmon R. Chinook Salmon makes its way back to its birthplace.
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Above: An Upper Middlefork Salmon R. Chinook Salmon makes its way back to its birthplace.

Salmon eggs developing in a stream.
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Above: Salmon eggs developing in a stream.

Bonneville Dam counting window, where returning salmon are counted each year.
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Above: Bonneville Dam counting window, where returning salmon are counted each year.

Grizzly bears take advantage of the salmon that swim upstream to spawn.
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Above: Grizzly bears take advantage of the salmon that swim upstream to spawn.

When European Americans arrived in the area 150 years ago, the subsequent growth and change in population severely affected the ecosystems. Overfishing, habitat destruction, and dam construction contributed to salmon’s decline, which led, in the late-nineteenth century, to a new government-sanctioned industry created to restore dwindling salmon populations: hatcheries.

Today, salmon hatcheries provide controlled environments where early developmental stages of the salmon lifecycle are replicated within the confines of concrete walls; eggs are artificially fertilized and incubated in tubes and plastic bags, and young salmon are raised in tanks before being released into the wild.

Regrettably, however, those very systems set up with the intention of saving salmon are contributing to the species’ devastating decline. The hatcheries’ controlled environment strips salmon of the genetic diversity and natural instinct critical for their survival in the wild. Once released into open rivers and streams, these populations of fish are vulnerable to a variety of challenges they are unprepared to meet.

Though ambitious efforts have been made to monitor and assist hatchery salmon in the wild – from barge and truck transportation around dams, to predator relocation programs – the results of those efforts have been essentially unsuccessful.

Salmon are an integral part of the ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest. Returning to their spawning grounds, they bring with them nutrient-rich marine nitrogen from the ocean. During their run, they feed all manner of wildlife, including bears and eagles, and they subsequently fertilize the surrounding forests. After they die, their bodies feed countless microorganisms, which in turn feed salmon hatchlings.

It remains to be seen if the various efforts of legislators, biologists, engineers, and conservationists can restore salmon numbers, and in the process, restore the vital role salmon play in the health of the land, and in the lives of the animals and people that depend on them.

"Salmon: Running The Gauntlet" goes beyond the ongoing debate over how to save an endangered species. In its exposure of a wildly creative, hopelessly complex and stunningly expensive approach to managing salmon, the film explores possible paths to salmon recovery.

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Video

Preview: Nature: Salmon: Running The Gauntlet

Watch the full episode. See more Nature.

Above: "Salmon: Running the Gauntlet" investigates the parallel stories of collapsing Pacific salmon populations and how biologists and engineers have become instruments in audacious experiments to replicate every stage of the fish's life cycle. Each of our desperate efforts to save salmon has involved replacing their natural cycle of reproduction and death with a radically manipulated life history.

Video

Salmon: Running The Gauntlet: The Hatchery Illusion

Above: Hatcheries fail to deliver on their promise of a future full of salmon. "Salmon: Running the Gauntlet" investigates the parallel stories of collapsing Pacific salmon populations and how biologists and engineers have become instruments in audacious experiments to replicate every stage of the fish's life cycle. Each of our desperate efforts to save salmon has involved replacing their natural cycle of reproduction and death with a radically manipulated life history. Our once great runs of salmon are now conceived in laboratories, raised in tanks, driven in trucks and farmed in pens.

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