Small Town News

Guest Opinion

A classic example of the law of unintended consequences

Shelton-Mason County Journal of Shelton, Washington

- Advertisement -


We have already for-gotten how things used to be" — sorrowful words from a Puget Sounder who remembers when the fishing was good.

He remembers when the Pacific Northwest was "once legendary for its salmon." He remembers when "we used to catch Silver Salmon that weighed 25 pounds." Now they're down to 3 pounds and "shaped like an eel."

He remembers scooping up herring for bait in a matter of minutes. "To find a herring takes hours today."

He remembers in the 1950s when kelp beds thrived as fish nurseries, "a place for fish to multiply." Now "there is just one small kelp bed left... in a little cove on Vashon Island."

He remembers bull kelp in long ribbons "with knobs that made it look like a bullwhip." He remembers kelp so thick boats would become entangled and stranded in drifting kelp islands.

It's all gone now, these scenes in Puget Sound all but forgotten.

Except by Norm Hemley. He remembers, and he writes about it in the North Bay Review, a monthly publication of the Allyn Community Association.

In the newsletter's last two issues, Hemley sadly recalls the past and grimly cites the law of unintended consequences for what has happened.

For the good of Puget Sound's people, water cleanup became a popular and successful campaign and a government-ordered mandate in the 1950s and 1960s. Formation of sewer districts and construction of water treatment facilities resulted. And their success is very much evident. Look at Lake Washington. Once a cesspool, its condition is now near-pristine.

But unintended consequences also resulted. And veteran sports fisherman Hemley puts it in perspective. "Billions of gallons of sterilized fresh water being released every day by sewage treatment plants" has dramatically changed Puget Sound ecology.

As Hemley explains: "The layer of less salty water is not only driving the fish deeper, but it's killing off the micro-organisms that small fish depend on, which in turn limits the salmon's food supply."

It is a classic example of the law of unintended consequences. "Actions of people — and especially of government — always have effects that are unanticipated or unintended," states economist-author Rob Norton.

"Most often," says Norton, "the law of unintended consequences illuminates the perverse unanticipated effects of legislation and regulation."

In 1936, sociologist Robert K. Merton provided a seminal analysis of the concept. His influential essay was titled "The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action." It is an apt description of the unpredicted effects of this state's successful clean-water initiatives.

Hemley says other factors have contributed to the decline of salmon, cod and perch in Puget Sound. High on his blame list are poisoning of creeks to plant more desirable sports-fish and nearly invisible monofilament gillnets.

He also bewails the "explosion of the seal and sea lion population." He says they now number "a shocking 300,000 voracious, fish-eating animals."

Today's Puget Sound doesn't remember the good fishing of a half-century ago and accepts as good and benevolent the actions taken to clean up the water and protect wildlife.

"Times have changed due to the law of unintended consequences," writes Hemley. "And the biggest, most glaring mistake we have made is allowing sanitized sewer water to flow into the Puget Sound."

Another consequence was this month's closure of salmon fishing. All non-tribal fishing was shut down as of the first of May.

John Komen, who lives at Mason Lake, was for 40 years a reporter and editor, Seattle television news anchorman and executive, national TV network news correspondent, producer, columnist, editorial writer and commentator. His column appears each week in the Shelton-Mason County Journal.

Copyright 2016 Shelton-Mason County Journal, Shelton, Washington. All Rights Reserved. This content, including derivations, may not be stored or distributed in any manner, disseminated, published, broadcast, rewritten or reproduced without express, written consent from SmallTownPapers, Inc.

Original Publication Date: May 26, 2016

More from Shelton-Mason County Journal