MARCH 1997

 

MARCH 1997 FULL ISSUE

THE FOREST THAT FISH BUILT

By RICHARD MANNING

Brian Fransen wades a creek too small to name in western Washington, waving a sort of wand over the water. He bears a robotic­ looking backpack that periodically hums, a signal that some little fish are going to have a bad day.  Stunned by the wand, they boil to the surface to be stuck in buckets, sorted, counted and weighed. Their stomachs are pumped before they go back to the stream, mostly unharmed. This electroshocking of fish is a single and ordinary act of science.

Fransen is a fish biologist, part of a broad net­ work of investigators filtering through the streams and estuaries of the Pacific coastal rainforest trying to unravel the central question of the region: What damage have we done to the once magnificent runs of salmon and how might we undo some of it? Yet Fransen asks that question in a specific place. His research scream is a tributary of the Willapa River, part of the discrete 620,000 acre watershed of Willapa Bay.

This context gives his work meaning. In the end, it is more about community than salmon. Willapa has so many blessings it would be hard to rank them, but near the top would be the accidental blessing that was James Swan, drawn to Willapa in 1852 by the oyster trade.  Swan had no particular gift for commerce but a great one for observation, and he left a record of the people he found, mostly Chinook Indians. He called the place an "Indians' paradise," not romanticism, but rather a hard-eyed assessment of the position of the Chinooks relative to neighboring tribes. The Chinooks were richer than their neighbors, largely because of overwhelming natural abundance. Central to this wealth was salmon - lavish runs of chinook, coho and especially chum.

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Paul Koberstein