THE SPECTACULAR, seemingly tragic spawning runs of Pacific salmon have been widely publicized in recent years by both broadcast and print media. But the crucial role played by salmon in the general ecology of the Pacific Coast of North America, as portrayed in this brilliant, bittersweet book by journalist Bruce Brown, will astonish all but the most ardent, well-read environmentalists, sport fishermen, and conservationists who stay in close touch with all of the professional literature about this unique natural resource.

Brown tells us, for example, "In a region that has been reworked by waves of glaciers for the last million years and which otherwise counts leaching rains as its predominant meteorological phenomenon, the wild salmon serves as nature's principal means of returning nutrients from the sea to the land. Through their passionate, seemingly perverse death, they give life not only to their own progeny, but also to a host of predators and other dependent species. They are, in short, an engine of general enrichment, and an important element in the long-range stability of the Pacific Coast ecosystem."

As a writer and conservationist, Brown is following in the footsteps of another great writer from the Pacific Northwest, the late British Columbian, Roderick L. Haig-Brown, who wrote several decades ago, "The salmon are, perhaps, the most exciting of the world's fish. They are fish of grace and beauty, strong and swift and bold. . . . Under natural conditions they are prolific . . . they grow to great size and their flesh is rich, yet delicate enough for epicures; and their predictable but always dramatic return to fresh water to spawn brings the wealth of the sea within reach of the waiting land dwellers. . . . The salmon belong to the nation's economy and the world's economy. Properly understood and properly cared for they represent a perpetual crop nothing else can replace. . . . No other resource offers mankind so much in return for so little."

But now, as Bruce Brown makes clear, the wild salmon are in grave danger of extinction, and even though he focuses on a relatively small area of the North American continent, a region that is unique in many ways, the ebb and flow of the continuing salmon wars he recapitulates have important lessons and implications for virtually all mankind. He thoroughly documents the repeated mismanagement of this precious resource on a river-by-river, species- by-species, decade-by-decade basis since the coming of the white man. He reminds us of the long-standing tradition of the staggering waste of natural resources that began with the likes of Davy Crockett in Kentucky and was epitomized in the incredible reduction of the once vast buffalo herds of the Great Plains from an estimated 60 million at the start of the 19th century to a mere 35,000 stragglers less than a century later. The destruction of the once great Atlantic salmon fisheries by commercial interests in Europe and Northeastern North America in the past few centuries and, more recently, the mismanagement of the wild salmon resource in Japan provide chilling reminders of what may soon be the fate of the Pacific Coast salmon.

One need not share the sport fisherman's love for salmon or the commercial fisherman's dependence on salmon -- or even the epicure's delight in this noble fish -- to understand the urgent messages in this profound and moving book. The author repeatedly warns of the accelerating diminution of both the quality and the quantity of this incomparable resource and details the inequities and the pitfalls in the pervasive hatchery programs that have proliferated at the expense of both the taxpaying citizenry and the salmon stocks themselves: "By 1980 the cost of producing salmon in Washington's new hatcheries was averaging between $6 and $10 per fish caught, according to a Department of Fisheries report. At some facilities like the enhancement program hatchery on the South Fork of the Willapa River, the projected per-fish cost to the public of that four pound, $18 coho in the Port Angeles supermarket would actually be between $28 and $42. . . . Where once there were free salmon in abundance, there are now expensive salmon for the affluent. Where people once built their homes out of the abundant local lumber, they now buy 'mobile homes' made of aluminum that cost thirty times as much and probably won't last half as long. Where peninsula homesteaders once lived independently and self-sufficiently, most people must now work for the same development interests that are impoverishing the public's natural wealth. There is o saying where the Northwest salmon story will eventually conclude, but it is certain that man and salmon will be linked, for as the Indians said from the start: the fate of one mirrors the fate of the other." Both man and salmon are fortunate indeed to have found so eloquent a spokesman as Bruce Brown in their hour of greatest need.