CORVALLIS, Ore. - Current efforts to save wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest and California almost certainly will fail. This appears to be the grim conclusion of 30 salmon scientists, policy analysts and wild salmon advocates participating in a year-long initiative to create policy options that would sustain wild runs of salmon in the West.
While agreeing that a new approach is needed, participants differ widely on what it will take to save wild salmon. Many of the suggested remedies - from reducing the population of the Northwest to removing major dams from rivers to advocating significant lifestyle changes - would likely be politically or culturally unpalatable. Yet their proponents say success would require that level of commitment.
Many of the prescriptions for sustaining wild salmon runs will get an opportunity to be presented and defended at a special symposium Sept. 15 in Anchorage, Alaska, on the final day of the annual meeting of the American Fisheries Society. About 2,000 fisheries scientists, managers, and other professionals are expected to attend the meeting.
The Salmon 2100 Project was organized by the Center for Water and Environmental Sustainability at Oregon State University, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency Research Laboratory in Corvallis.
"We're not asking the question about whether we should be saving wild salmon runs," said Robert T. Lackey, a senior fisheries biologist at EPA and a courtesy professor in the OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. "That question is a value judgment that people ultimately will decide. Our goal was to have 30 people, from different backgrounds and perspectives, answer the question: What specific policies must be implemented in order to have a high probability of sustaining significant runs of wild salmon through 2100 in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and southern British Columbia?"
Lackey said that all participants believe there are policies that could safeguard wild salmon runs. Many of those recommendations, however, are contradictory, would require changes in the Endangered Species Act and other laws or would be unlikely to achieve public acceptance, he said.
OSU sociologist Denise Lach, also a project leader, said it was intriguing to note what policies were not suggested by the participants.
"No one suggested population control, abrogating Native American treaties, or shifting from hydropower to nuclear, coal or other types of fuel," she said. "And no one advocated stopping the harvest of salmon, which are the only endangered species that we actually still hunt."
The policy suggestions tend to fall into four general categories, the project leaders say.
One group of analysts believes the way to preserve runs is through science and engineering, and suggests a variety of actions ranging from using hatcheries to genetically modify fish to the creation of artificial streams and spawning channels that would bypass dams and areas of poor habitat. One prescriptive suggestion was to focus fiscal resources on fertilizing or otherwise improving the oceans environment rather than trying to improve habitat on land.
A number of proposals were regulatory in nature. Suggestions included reforming bureaucracies, creating a "salmon czar," establishing a Homeland Security-type of agency to oversee salmon protection and recovery, and implementing much stronger regulations aimed at improving and protecting habitat.
A third group of policy suggestions fit into what Lackey called a "triage approach," placing resources and regulatory approaches in specific areas that were more likely to be successful, and ignoring the huge political and societal obstacles associated with other major initiatives.
"There was a school of thought among the 'triage group' that sustaining wild salmon runs in the Columbia River and the Sacramento River would require removing the dams, and that simply was not going to happen in the view of these proponents," Lackey said. "If the dams are needed for generating power and providing water for irrigation and flood control, salmon are not going to be a priority, they say, so we'd be better off focusing our resources elsewhere, such as coastal streams."
Within that triage group, though, were others who suggested the United States and southern British Columbia adopt a "Yellowstone approach" to managing wild salmon runs, Lackey pointed out. In those proposals, salmon would be akin to the buffalo at Yellowstone, with certain watersheds set aside for protection. Such an approach would require a change in the Endangered Species Act.
The fourth group of policy suggestions involved a series of smaller actions, Lackey said.
"The general feeling of these people is that we've been getting into this problem since 1850, and it's been death by a thousand cuts," Lackey said. "So to make things right, we need to make improvements by a thousand smaller measures - fixing a bit of habitat here, improving a dam there."
The leaders of the Salmon 2100 Project - Lackey, Lach and Sally Duncan, a research associate with OSU's Department of Sociology - say they don't favor any single proposal or set of proposals. Their goal was to get the most creative thinking out of a wide range of people with different backgrounds.
"We don't have a dog in this fight," Lach said. "The participants represent the range of policy perspectives and they definitely don't agree amongst themselves - except on the point that current recovery efforts are not likely to be successful."
The American Fisheries Society will publish a book including all of the proposals this January. And in keeping with the spirit of the project, it will include no recommendations or consensus.
The participants will be identified as individuals, not as being affiliated with agencies or groups.
Lackey, Lach and Duncan initially conducted a careful analysis of the long-term future of wild salmon in the region and concluded that four "core policy drivers" will affect any attempt at creating new policies aimed at sustaining wild salmon runs. These four factors include priorities for commerce, increasing scarcity of natural resources, regional human population increases, and individual choices.
They note that the drive for economic efficiency and low-cost production - which they call the rules of commerce - works against increasing the number of wild salmon. If the supply of wild salmon becomes too small or too expensive, "we'll buy them from Chile, Scotland, or British Columbia, which is where most salmon come from now," Lackey said.
The key natural resource for wild salmon is water, and demands on it are increasing. Land use demands also are on the rise, degrading habitat. Both are affected by the third policy driver, which is population growth.
"This region is historically under populated, as demographers like to say," Lach said. "It is 'fill-in' country, and solid estimates are that we should expect four to five times the people here by 2100 that we have now. None of the policy suggestions are taking that into account. None. To a person, [project participants] say if that model is true, what's the use?"
The final deciding factor in creating new policies will be individual and collective choice, Duncan said. Saving wild salmon sounds noble, she points out. Changing behavior is more difficult.
"If you live in a house, send your kids to school, drive a car, and even go down to a fast-food joint for French fries, in a real sense, you are damaging salmon habitat," Duncan said. "Do we want comparatively cheap electricity or wild salmon? Are we willing to pass legislation that will take our private property and turn it into salmon habitat?
"Ultimately, it is possible that sustaining wild salmon may not be enough of a priority for people to choose it over their current lifestyles," she added. "It would be far less disruptive socially to decide simply that hatchery fish provide an acceptable alternative."