Documentary shows audience importance of taking action

Salmon are a necessary species because their presence means a river is healthy
By Cheryl Aarnio | Jul 19, 2019
Courtesy of: Cheryl Aarnio Andrea Matzke, executive director of Wild Washington Rivers: “Salmon are part of so many food sources, but they tell us what is good and bad about the health of the river.”

Mark Titus’ award-winning documentary “The Breach,” screened July 13 at Edmonds Unitarian Universalist Congregation for the Sno-King Meaningful Movies series, was released in 2014. But it is just as relevant today.

It was the right time for a film focusing on the plight of salmon and the dangers they faced in Alaska’s Bristol Bay with Pebble Mine – a proposed copper and gold operation – that was rejected during the Obama administration.

Bristol Bay is in southwestern Alaska, home to half of the world’s sockeye salmon. It is also home to the world’s largest migration of wild salmon.

“[In 2014], the EPA decided that it was too much of a risk, that the salmon fishery is just too important culturally and economically to the region,” said Nancy Dolan, co-chair of the steering committee for Sno-King Meaningful Movies.

However, Bristol Bay has been in the news recently because the Environmental Protection Agency is now reconsidering the mine’s development.

Among the footage in “The Breach” is British Columbia’s Mount Polley mine, which failed in 2014 when a dam breached and spilled 6.3 billion gallons of mining waste into a Fraser River watershed teaming with sockeye salmon.

It’s environmental disasters such as Mount Polley that the EPA considered during the Obama era, and the issue has come up again – now closer to home – as there is a proposed mine in the Skagit River headwaters, home to five species of salmon.

“I'm old enough to remember the proposed nuclear power plants on the Skagit,” Dolan said. “Anybody remember that? The rallying cry: ‘The magic of the Skagit.’ I do remember that. So we may want to revive that and remember just how valuable the Skagit River is, for a lot of reasons.”

The documentary shows how, over time, human actions have harmed salmon; many of the fish have been unable to successfully pass through dams to spawn. Despite that, success stories are recognized: On Washington’s Elwha River, two dams were removed after 40 years of protests and, in 2012, salmon were finally able to spawn on the river, which they had not been able to do for a century.

Salmon farms are another problem, the documentary points out. In areas with salmon farms, there has been documentation of sea lice infecting salmon. Wild smolt, or juvenile salmon, that travel near the farms can become infected and die.

These topics were reported on in “The Breach,” and Titus’ film “The Wild: How Do You Save What You Love?” continues the story “The Breach” started, premiering at the Seattle International Film Festival last May.

At the Sno-King Meaningful Movies showing of “The Breach,” the documentary generated much discussion, not just about salmon, but also about pollution, the role of plastic in bodies of water, and what people can do to help.

Andrea Matzke, executive director of Wild Washington Rivers, said salmon are an important part of the food web.

“There are all these species that depend on it,” she said. “And they are the litmus test for the waters for us. So they are the canaries in the coal mine. They are a keystone indicator. Salmon are part of so many food sources, but they tell us what is good and bad about the health of the river.”

Janet Way, an audience member, pointed out that salmon go through the Lake Washington Ship Canal, the Sammamish River, and the Cedar River. She said local governments are in denial about the importance of protecting these smaller streams.

“It's these small streams that lead to the big streams,” she said. “They all matter, and if people put their foot down in these local areas and stand up for these places, you can make a difference.”

Audience members agreed it’s important to contact elected officials. Matzke shared that it’s important to show there is support in a constituency. It is better to have 10 letters than one, she said, and showing that there is vocal and written support can be the difference between a senator or representative taking action or not.

“The Breach” is available for streaming on YouTube and Amazon Prime, and the DVD is available from Sno-Isle Libraries.



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