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Plagued by a Wicked Problem: Wild Salmon Recovery

July 28, 2017

New Strategies for Wicked Problems explores the various wicked problems-- problems that may be impossible or difficult to solve-- that impact our world today. Many of these issues are in need of democratic, creative, and effective solutions. Edward P. Weber, Denise Lach, and Brent S. Steel, professors here at Oregon State University, sought out the essays of other scholars in science, politics, and policy to address the challenges at hand. As a result, New Strategies for Wicked Problems gives a wide variety of alternative solutions to many major contemporary issues. Today readers will get an inside look at one of the Pacific Northwest's bigger issues: the decline in salmon runs and the secondary issues that arise from addressing such a significant problem.




Chapter 3: Science and Salmon Recovery
"Policy Context"
Robert T. Lackey

The striking decline of salmon runs in California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho has been typical of those that have occurred elsewhere. In other regions of the world where salmon were once plentiful, increasing human numbers, their activities, and consequent alteration of the landscape have coincided with decreasing salmon abundance. Thus, what has happened-- and is happening-- to wild salmon in California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho is the latest example of a pattern that has played out numerous times in other regions of the world for salmon (Lack et al. 2006) and other fish species (Limburg and Waldman 2009; Limburg et al. 2011).

Prior to the 1800s, large spawning migrations (runs) of Atlantic salmon were found in many coastal rivers of western Europe and eastern North America (Montgomery 2003, National Research Council 2004). By the middle to late 1800s, many of those runs were drastically reduced, concurrent with human population increase and economic development (Limburg and Waldman 2009). Overall, salmon runs continue to be much reduced on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The largest remaining Atlantic salmon runs, although diminished by historical standards, occur in eastern Canada, Iceland, Ireland, Scotland, and the northern rivers of Norway, Finland, and Russia, locations with relatively few people and limited human impact on the aquatic environment. Nevertheless, Atlantic salmon are readily available in the retail market because commercial aquaculture provides an ample and consistent supply.

As with Atlantic salmon, Pacific salmon (Chinook, coho, sockeye, chum, pink, and steelhead) were historically abundant across a large region (Augerot 2005). Nevertheless, Pacific salmon, found on both sides of the North Pacific, have also declined substantially from historical levels, especially in the southern portion of their distribution, although not as dramaticaly as Atlantic salmon (Nehlsen 1997). Hatchery production has been used to maintain most runs in southern portions of the range (e.g., Japan, Korea, California, Oregon, and Washington). Today, in California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, runs that are sufficiently large to support commerical, recreational, and tribal fishing almost always comprise mainly hatchery-produced salmon. Runs of wild salmon in the northern portions of the range (e.g., Russian Far East, Alaska, Yukon, and northern British Columbia) are in better condition, though large hatchery programs exist in these regions as well (Nehlsen 1997). There are indications that salmon numbers are increasing in Arctic habitats, presumably caused by an overall warming trend (Nielsen et al. 2013).

The discoveries of gold in California (1848) and elsewhere later resulted in substantial adverse effects on many salmon runs (Lackey et al. 2006c). Efforts to protect and restore salmon populations in California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho began in the early 1850s, and such efforts have been technically challenging, socially contentious, and politically painful (National Research Council 2012). Overall, past recovery efforts for wild salmon (in contrast to salmon bred and raised in hatcheries) have been largely unsuccessful (National Research Council 1996, 2012). Over many decades, thousands of scientists have been involved with salmon recovery efforts, but prospects for recovery of wild salmon remain elusive (Scarce 2000, National Research Council 2012).  Of the nearly 1,400 distinct Pacific salmon populations that occurred prior to 1848 in California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, an estimated 29 percent have been extirpated (Gustafson et al. 2007). The remaining populations of wild salmon are greatly reduced, with almost all at less than 5 percent of their historical levels (Schoonmaker et al. 2003). Twenty-eight evolutionary significant units (i.e., a group of salmon populations considered to be a "species" for purposes of regulatory protection) are formally listed as either threatened or endangered as defined by the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Salmon recovery efforts are costly, though deciding which specific expenses should be deemed recovery costs is complicated and the subject of debate. Just within the Columbia River Basin, for example, salmon recovery costs have totaled approximately $10 billion since 1978 (Northwest Power and Conservation Council 2013), though part of this estimate reflects lost electricity sales (i.e., "forgone revenue") when the hydropower system curbed generation to meet constraints imposed by salmon recovery requirements (e.g., passing water downstream, but bypassing turbines that harm salmon).

As a public policy case study, wild salmon recovery in California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho is characterized by many apparent conundrums:

  • For well over a century, both scientists and the public have recognized the dramatic decline of wild salmon runs, but consensus remains elusive on a regional recovery policy that would actually work.
  • At least several billion dollars has been spent to restore wild salmon, but their overall, long-term downward trajectory continues.
  • Many populations of wild salmon are listed as "threatened" or "endangered," yet wild salmon are available seasonally in grocery stores-- and farm-raised fresh salmon are sold year around.
  • The various species of salmon are among the most thoroughly studied fishes in the world, but the failure of recovery efforts is often attributed to a lack of scientific information (Naiman et al. 2012).
  • Thousands of scientists and other technological experts are employed to facilitate the recovery of wild salmon, but, over the long term, salmon populations have rarely responded positively to these recovery efforts (Lackey et al. 2006c).
  • The Endangered Species Act, arguably the most powerful US environmental law, has been extensively used by some policy advocates to impose federal authority by listing various salmon species as either threatened or endangered; however, this approach has been insufficient to achieve salmon recovery (Lack 2001b).
  • The overarching goal of the ESA is to protect at-risk species and the habitat on which they depend, but this law, counterintuitively, may impede recovery of wild salmon in watersheds where the chances of recovery are the greatest (Lach et al. 2006).
  • To offset the effects on salmon runs of certain dams constructed for hydropower, irrigation, and other purposes, federal, state, and tribal governments are required to operate salmon hatchery programs to supplement runs to sustain fishing, but these programs may actually weaken wild salmon runs (Lichatowich 1999).
  • Federal and state agencies are mandated with protecting and restoring wild salmon runs, but they are also tasked with promoting harvest (i.e., fishing), which can work, by definition, against recovery.
In sum, the salmon recovery issue is a classic example of the difficulties of effectively addressing wicked problems. Scientists engaged in salmon recovery issues tend to depict the policy debate as a scientific or ecological challenge, and the "solutions" they offer are usually focused on aspects of salmon ecology (Naiman et al. 2012). Even though there is an extensive scientific literature about salmon (Quinn 2005, Lackey et al. 2006a), experience thus far suggests that the future of wild salmon will largely be determined almost entirely by factors outside the scope of science (Williams et al. 1999, Montgomery 2003, Lackey et al. 2006b). More specifically, to effect a long-term reversal of the downward trajectory of wild salmon, a broad, interdependent, and complex suite of important public policy questions must be considered and effectively dealt with to successfully recover wild salmon to significant, sustainable levels:
  • Hydroelectric energy. How costly and reliable does society want energy to be, given that wild salmon ultimately are affected by providing the relatively cheap, carbon-free, and reliable energy produced by hydropower?
  • Land use. Where will people be able to live, how much living space will they be permitted, what activities will they be able to do on their own land, and what personal choices will they have in deciding how land is used?
  • Property rights. Will the acceptable use of private land be altered, and who or what institutions will decide what constitutes acceptable use?
  • Food cost and choice. Will food continue to be subsidized by taxpayers (e.g., publicly funded irrigation, crop subsidies), or will the price of food be determined solely by a  free market?
  • Economic opportunities. How will high-paying jobs be created and sustained for present and subsequent generations?
  • Individual freedoms. Which, if any, personal rights or behavioral choices will be compromised or sacrificed if society is genuinely committed to restoring wild salmon?
  • Evolving priorities. Is society willing to continue substituting hatchery-produced salmon for wild salmon, and, if so, will the ESA permit this?
  • Political realities. Will society support modifying the ESA such that salmon recovery expenditures can be shifted to those watersheds offering the best chance of success?
  • Cultural legacies. Which individuals, and groups, if any, will be granted the right to fish, and who or what institutions will decide?
  • Indian treaties. Will treaties between the United States and various tribes-- guaranteeing Native American fishing rights and comanagement (with US states) of salmon stocks, and negotiated more than 150 years ago-- be modified to reflect today's dramatically different biological, economic, and demographic realities?
  • Population policy. -- What, if anything, will society do to influence or control the level of human population in California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, or indeed the United States as a whole?
  • Ecological realities. Given likely future conditions (i.e., an apparently warming climate), what wild salmon recovery goals are biologicall realistic?
  • Budgetary realities. Will the fact that the annual cost of sustaining hatchery and wild salmon runs in California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho exceeds the overall commerical market value of the harvest eventually mean that such a level of budgetary expenditure will become less politically viable?
These are all key policy questions germane to the public debate over wild salmon recovery policy, and they highlight how scientific information, while at some level relevant and necessary, is clearly not at the crux of the policy debate. In short, scientists can provide useful technical insight and ecological reality checks to help the public and decision-makers answer these policy questions, but science is only one input among many (Policansky 1998, Scarce 2000, National Research Council 2012). 

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