Norm Dicks inducted into Wild Salmon Hall of Fame

From childhood, U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks was destined to become an advocate for salmon and ultimately a champion for the entire Puget Sound ecosystem, according to recent comments from his family and friends.

Norm Dicks on a fishing trip in 2010.
Photo courtesy of Pacific Northwest Salmon Center

Most people know that Norm — whose home lies in southern Hood Canal — will leave office at the end of this year. Recognizing his efforts on behalf of salmon, the Pacific Northwest Salmon Center recently named him to its “Wild Salmon Hall of Fame.”

Neil Werner, executive director of the salmon center, said Norm embodies all the criteria for hall of fame inductees, such as a passion to restore wild salmon, a willingness to share knowledge and much success in making things happen. Listing the criteria, he said, is like describing Norm Dicks himself.

I won’t list all the accomplishments that Neil cited during an induction ceremony two weeks ago, but they included Norm’s leadership in obtaining congressional funding for a variety of programs to restore salmon in Puget Sound, to heal the Puget Sound watershed (including federal lands) and to increase our understanding of how the ecosystem works.

As a result, salmon have regained access to 900 miles of stream habitat, including the nearly pristine watershed above two dams on the Elwha River.

“We will see the benefits of what he has done for an awfully long time, if not in perpetuity,” Neil said.

Ryan Dicks, Norm’s younger son, joked that his father may have loved salmon fishing his entire life, but that did not make him a hall-of-fame fisherman, at least if one judges by other family members. Norm never received any awards from the Tyee Club, Ryan said, but Norm’s grandmother, Hilda, and even his wife, Suzie, were named “fishermen of the year.”

“He did catch two fish at once,” Ryan noted, going on to explain that his dad played one salmon so long that a ling cod came along and swallowed the salmon while it was still on the line.

Norm’s passion for fishing cannot be denied, however, Ryan said. On his first election day in 1976, he went fishing rather than waiting around for vote totals. He caught a 14-pound “silver” (coho) that day before the votes were counted.

Ryan next introduced Frank Haw, an avid fisherman, longtime fisheries biologist and former deputy director of the state’s fisheries agency. Haw is known as the “father of blackmouth fishing” for a program that created resident chinook. As Ryan Dicks tells it, Frank did not need to buy herring for his salmon-fishing trips; he simply went out and caught a bunch of herring with a jig, then used them for bait.

Ryan said Frank taught Norm and his family much of what they know about salmon fishing.

Haw stepped up to the front of the crowd and said he was honored to speak at the Wild Salmon Hall of Fame presentation.

“Norm Dicks is the undisputed champion of salmon recovery in Washington state,” Haw said, then proceeded to talk about the “holistic approach” involving four H’s: habitat, hatcheries, harvest and hydro.

Habitat: Norm was among the first to recognize the level of work needed in the rivers to replace culverts that block salmon migration, to reconnect side channels where salmon can find refuge and to remove logging roads that deliver sediment into the streams.

Hatcheries: Norm recognized the importance of reforming hatcheries to protect wild fish. He helped fund a panel of scientists to make suggestions for improvements at each hatchery in the state.

Harvest: Nobody has had the “wisdom and courage” to tackle harvest reform the way Norm has, according to Haw. He battled tribes that opposed the marking of hatchery fish and wrote requirements for marking into federal law. Now, it is possible to distinguish wild from hatchery salmon, which allows sport fishermen to release the wild ones. New methods are being developed for releasing wild fish during commercial operations as well.

Hydro: Removal of two dams on the Elwha River is one important measure of Norm’s success. Without him, Haw said, there would have been no chance to remove the dams, no hope of restoring the legendary chinook that once populated the river.

Tim Thompson, a longtime aide to Dicks, talked about the political obstacles to ecosystem restoration.

“Norm approached natural resource issues without fear,” he said. “It is not easy for elected officials to care about natural resources issues. It is hard to go to the timber industry and say, ‘You need to do more.’”

Thompson said Norm “invested his political capital” to bring timber industry folks together with tribal and environmental officials. Major timber companies voluntary developed habitat conservation plans to address a variety of endangered and threatened species.

Norm promoted new programs to restore habitat over time, including a national Legacy Roads and Trails Program in the national forests and a Northwest salmon recovery fund to help the states with their efforts.

Thompson said others will need to step up to continue the effort that Dicks started and continued throughout his 34 years in office.

After receiving the hall of fame award — a statue of a salmon — Dicks spoke to the group. He said the effort to restore salmon grew out of an understanding that not enough was being done if the salmon were to avoid extinction.

“You have to have a scientific basis for what you’re doing,” Dicks said. “That’s how the Hatchery Scientific Review Group came about. We wanted them to look at all the hatcheries in the Pacific Northwest and see how they can lead to (salmon) recovery.”

When it became clear that a program was needed to identify individual hatchery salmon to protect the wild fish, Norm put that requirement into a Department of Interior appropriations bill along with money for the marking program.

“I learned that from Sen. Magnuson,” explained Dicks, who had worked for Washington’s longtime powerful senator, Warren Magnuson, who died in 1989.

Dicks said he is pleased with the massive restoration conducted at the Nisqually River estuary, the Skokomish River estuary and now the Union River estuary.

When the regional salmon enhancement groups needed money for restoration, Dicks stepped up to help. Each received $100,000, he said, but the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group was given an extra $200,000 — “because it’s on Hood Canal.”

When budget “earmarks” or “directed spending” fell out of favor, Dicks said he approached the director of Interior to keep the salmon-recovery program working through next year.

“He said it (the program) was working well,” Norm said, “and that he will put in into the budget for the Fish and Wildlife Service.”

Norm has not said what he plans to do in retirement. I doubt that he really knows yet, given that the pressure cooker won’t be turned off for another two months.

“As I leave the scene, I will still be around,” he told the audience of salmon supporters. “I will work with you in all of your plans. This has been a big part of my career. We still have to restore these salmon, these wild fish. With people like you in this room, we will get there.”

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