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Natural Resource Damages & The Historical Record

The Columbia Salmon Fishery

(Excerpted from an article that first appeared in Harper's Magazine in the mid 1880s.)

Old photograph of dammed waterwayOn the first twenty-five miles of the river above its mouth we observe the large buildings of the salmon fishery, and Astoria is the centre of that industry. From a small beginning in 1864 or 1865, it has arrived at the proportions of a great business employing large capital and thousands of men. The fish are taken by gill-nets, the size of the mesh being prescribed by law. The nets are several hundred fathoms long, and twelve or fifteen feet deep. . . . Each boat, being managed by two men, is cast rapidly across the current, and allowed to drift a mile or so before being hauled in. Seals follow the salmon, and are so bold as to take them out of the nets, and are frequently caught along with their prey. . . . The salmon-canning establishments are large unsightly structures, constructed over the water on piles, and without the slightest concessions to architectural effect or taste. . . . The product of these establishments have found their way to every market in the world, and the salmon packed on the Columbia commands a higher price than any other. It is, indeed, a noble fish, and if means are taken to prevent the diminution of the run, will prove a source of wealth for many years to come. In 1876 the number of cases put up was 428,730 and in 1879 there were shipped to England 106,102 cases, and to San Francisco 238,500 cases. (The West: A Collection from Harper’s Magazine, New York: Gallery Books, 1990).

As broadly defined in Section 101(16) of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), natural resources encompass "land, fish, wildlife, biota, air, water, groundwater, drinking water supplies, and other such resources belonging to, managed by, held in trust by, appertaining to, or otherwise controlled by the United States . . . any State or local government, [or] any foreign government, any Indian tribe. . . ." Liability for response costs and cost associated with damages to natural resources may arise under such federal legislation as CERCLA and The Clean Water Act as well as state and local legislation.

Given the potential liability posed to owners/operators of commercial, industrial, and other types of properties for costs associated with natural resources damages, it is little wonder that questions arise concerning the status of a given nature resource at a fixed point in time.

CERCLA targets four types of potentially responsible parties for Superfund liability:

  • owners of sites;
  • operators of sites;
  • transporters of hazardous substances; and
  • those who arrange for such transportation.

It is important to note that owners may be held liable even if they purchased land without knowledge of hazardous wastes contained on their property. CERCLA imposes strict liability and, therefore, does not require a specific finding of negligence before penalties may be imposed. Also, joint and several liability allows the EPA to force a party who may be responsible for only part of the damage to pay the entire cost of cleanup.

Defenses to liability are limited to:

  • acts of God;
  • acts of war;
  • actions of a third party;
  • innocent landowner defense; or
  • security interest exemption.

By drawing upon the historical record, empirical data and anecdotal information necessary to document base-line natural resources conditions can be collected. Resources utilized to gather historical information related to base-line environmental conditions include records of such federal agencies as the:

THE UNITED STATES BUREAU OF FISHERIES/ U.S. Wildlife Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and related agencies

The United States Fish Commission was created by Joint Resolution of Congress of February 9, 1871. By 1880 the commission was known as the United States Fish and Fisheries Commission. The commission was placed under the aegis of the Department of Commerce and Labor, which was created on February 14, 1903, and was then known as the Bureau of Fisheries. Under the terms of Reorganization Plan No. 2 of 1939 (effective July 1, 1939) the bureau was transferred from the Department of Commerce to the Department of the Interior. Under the terms of Reorganization Plan No. 3 of 1940 (effective June 30, 1940) the Bureau of Fisheries merged with the Bureau of Biological Survey to form the Fish and Wildlife Service of the Department of the Interior. Pursuant to the Fish and Wildlife Act (70 Stat. 1119), the United States Fish and Wildlife Service was established by the Secretary of the Interior to succeed the Fish and Wildlife Service (effective November 5, 1956).



Existing divisions within the departments of Agriculture and Interior were consolidated in 1901 to form the USDA Bureau of Forestry. The bureau was reorganized in 1905 to form the USDA Forest Service.

Related Readings

  • Bottom, D. L. The Effects of Stream Alterations on Salmon and Trout Habitat in Oregon (1985).
  • Chasan, Daniel Jack. The Water Link (1981).
  • Evermann, B.W. 1894. Report of the Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries on the Investigations in the Columbia River Basin in Regard to the Salmon Fisheries (1894).
  • Fitzgibbon, Edward. The Book of the Salmon: in two parts (1850).
  • Frank, Bernard, and Anthony Netboy. Water, Land and People (1950).
  • Goudie, Andrew. The Human Impact on the Natural Environment (1986).
  • Holmes, Beatrice Holt. History of Federal Water Resources Programs and Policies, 1961-70 (1979).
  • Ingram, Helen M. Patterns of Politics in Water Resource Development (1969).
  • McGinnis, Samuel M. Freshwater Fishes of California (1984).
  • Reiser, Dudley Woodward. Effects of Streamflow Reduction, Flow Fluctuation and Flow Cessation on Salmonid Egg Incubation and Fry Quality (1981).
  • U.S.Bureau of Reclamation. Critical Water Problems Facing the Eleven Western States (1975).