by

Robert T. Lackey

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Despite a few recent newspaper headlines heralding several “record” salmon runs, most salmon runs in California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho are a mere shadow of their pre-1848 levels.  Further, even most of these relatively small remaining runs are largely maintained by releases of  hatchery-raised fish.  Wild salmon — typically defined as those whose parents spawned naturally in natural habitat — comprise only a small portion of most runs and their overall abundance is a sliver of historical levels.

The decline has been well known and for more than 160 years there have been concerted efforts to recover salmon runs.  Especially during the past three decades, the extent and cost of formal recovery efforts for wild salmon have substantially increased — in large part a response to requirements of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

While using hatcheries to sustain relatively large salmon runs is plausible — although technically challenging — the requirements of the ESA relative to wild salmon has made the role of hatcheries in sustaining or increasing runs legally contentious.

In my interactions with professional colleagues over many years, they agree — usually only when speaking unofficially — that current efforts will not successfully recover wild salmon to abundances that would assure self-sustainability and support sizable sport and commercial harvest.  Such a level of abundance would need to be at least a third or more of the typical pre-1848 run size.

Even with the very large expenditures to recover wild salmon, what that pushes the most knowledgeable people to the stunning conclusion that these well-meaning efforts will fail?

To succeed, a wild salmon recovery strategy must address several overarching and undisputed realities about the West Coast that have developed over many years.  Without addressing these realities, any wild salmon recovery strategy will fall far short of expectations.  It will be added to a long list — well over a century in the making — of noble, but failed salmon recovery strategies.  Even if society continues to spend billions to restore wild salmon runs, these efforts ultimately will be only marginally successful.

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What are these realities and how must they be changed to recover wild salmon to even a third of their historical level?   Let’s look at the four key ones.

Fact 1:   Overall, wild salmon abundance south of the Canadian border, is very low and has been so for a long time.  Most spawning runs are far less than 10% of their pre-1848 levels.  Over two dozen Endangered Species Act “species” (distinct population segments) are now listed as threatened or endangered.  Many runs have already disappeared and more will follow unless there is a reversal of the long-term downward trajectory.

Fact 2:   We have been well aware for a long time of the main causes of the dire state of salmon runs along the West Coast.  These causes are well documented scientifically and include mining, dams, water pollution, habitat alteration, over-fishing, irrigation water withdrawals, predation on salmon by many species, competition with hatchery-produced salmon and other, often non-native fish species, and many other causes.

Fact 3:   Anywhere wild salmon were once plentiful (Europe, Asian Far East, Eastern North America), the decline in their abundance is roughly inversely proportional to the area’s growth in the human population.  Over decades and centuries, as the human population expanded in these regions, the size of salmon runs declined to minuscule levels.  Since 1848, the West Coast is playing out similarly for wild salmon.  For example, from a pre-1848 human population level of a few hundred thousand, California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho are now home to 50 million people. Over the same time period, wild salmon abundance in the four States has declined from roughly 50 million to a few million.  And the future?  Assuming expected human population growth in these four States, by 2100 they will be home to somewhere between 150 and 200 million people — a tripling or quadrupling by the end of this century — barely 80 years from now.

Fact 4:   It is not just the sheer number of humans (Fact 3), but their individual and collective life-styles that reduce the abundance of wild salmon.  In the absence of dramatic changes in economic policies and life-styles, future options for restoring salmon runs to significant, sustainable levels will be greatly constrained. For example, by 2100, with 150-200 million people living in the 4 West Coast states, consider the additional demand for houses, roads, Costcos, Starbucks, air conditioning, drinking water, office buildings — the list is a very long one.

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What about the potential of current wild salmon recovery efforts to change the long-term, downward trajectory for wild salmon in California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho?

Corollary 1 To succeed in restoring wild salmon runs to significant, sustainable levels, a wild salmon recovery strategy must change the four facts or that strategy will fail.  If society only continues to spend billions of dollars in quick-fix efforts to restore wild salmon runs, then in most cases these efforts will be only marginally successful and the long-term downward trajectory of wild salmon will continue.  It is money spent on activities not likely to achieve recovery of wild salmon, however it helps people feel better as they continue the behaviors and choices that preclude the recovery of wild salmon.  As important, it also sustains a jobs program for scientists and other technocrats by funding the salmon recovery industry.  This industry has become is a multi billion dollar enterprise and collectively forms an influential advocacy group.

Turning to the future to assess what is realistically plausible, maintaining sustainable populations of many highly valued non-native West Coast fish species (e.g., bluegill, walleye, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, brook trout, and striped bass) is feasible, because these species, unlike salmon, are well adapted to the greatly altered West Coast aquatic environments.  Overall with a drastically altered aquatic environment, and not at all surprising, many nonnative fish species are doing well.  Nor should it be surprising that wild salmon are struggling to hang on in environments for which they are poorly adapted.

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In conclusion, if society continues to ignore these four facts and the corollary, no one should be surprised by the lack of long-term success of wild salmon recovery efforts.  Perhaps these billions of dollars being spent to recover wild salmon should be considered “guilt money” — modern-day indulgences — a tax society and individuals willingly endure to alleviate collective and individual remorse about the sorry state of wild salmon.  After all, it is money spent on activities unlikely to achieve the recovery of wild salmon, but it perhaps helps many people feel better as people continue the behaviors and choices that essentially preclude wild salmon recovery.

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Robert T. Lackey

Department of Fisheries and Wildlife

Oregon State University

Corvallis, Oregon 97331-3803

Office:    (541) 737-0569

Cell:        (541) 602-5904

Email:     Robert.Lackey@oregonstate.edu

Web:       http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/lackey/

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Robert T. LackeySee the source image

Several years ago, toward the end of my career with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, one of the “outreach” staff in Washington, DC, telephoned me in Corvallis and posed a question:  “In science, why isn’t the notion of ecosystem health a useful metaphor to convey scientific information?  I see the metaphor used all the time.”

When I provided a long-winded, complicated, technically rigorous answer, the staffer was obviously disappointed. Evidently, he was looking for something simple and clear-cut.  I then asked, ever so diplomatically, to provide a brief written answer that could be published in the EPA internal blog.  What follows is an edited version of what was submitted.

Very young children have a habit of asking innocent, but thorny questions.   My grandson, however, has reached an age where innocence no longer passes for an excuse for his questions;   he knows enough now that his questions reflect the traits of a budding intellectual troublemaker.

A case in point:  here is my answer to his question about the increasingly popular term: ecosystem health.

          “Grandpa, in school today in my science class, we talked about healthy ecosystems. My teacher says that when we are not feeling well, we go to a doctor to find out how to get healthy. If I have a sick ecosystem, she says that I should go to a scientist find out how to make the ecosystem healthy. Dad says you are a scientist, so what is a healthy ecosystem?”

It is a good question and one that I, as a research scientist who has worked on such issues for over 40 years, should be able to answer with ease.

This seemingly straightforward question, however, does not have a simple answer. Further, the answer requires a clear understanding of the proper role of science in a democracy.

First, how is a person to recognize a healthy ecosystem?  Many might identify the healthiest ecosystems as those that are pristine. But what is the pristine state of an ecosystem? Is it the condition of North America prior to alterations caused by European immigrants, say 1491?  Or perhaps it is the condition of the land sometime well after the arrival of immigrants who came by way of the Bering land bridge, say 1,000 years ago? Or maybe it is the state of North America prior to the arrival of any humans, say more than 15,000 years ago?

Ultimately it is a policy decision that will specify the desired state of an ecosystem. It is a choice, a preference, a goal.

Scientists can provide options, alternatives, and possibilities, but ultimately in a democracy it is society that chooses from among the possible goals.

For example, a malarial infested swamp in its natural state could be defined as a healthy ecosystem, as could the same land converted to an intensively managed rice paddy.  Neither the swamp nor the rice paddy can be seen as a “healthy” ecosystem except through the lens of a person’s values or policy goals.

Once the desired state of an ecosystem is specified by someone, or by society overall through laws and regulation, scientists can determine how close we are to achieving that goal. They might even offer some approaches that might better achieve the goal.  Ultimately, though, it is society that defines the goal, not scientists. One person’s sick ecosystem is another person’s healthy ecosystem.

So, the answer to my grandson’s provocative question is that human health is not an appropriate metaphor for ecosystem health.  There is no inherently “healthy” state of ecosystems except when viewed from the perspective of societal values.

Pristine ecosystems (e.g., wilderness watersheds, Antarctica, uninhabited tundra) are certainly very different than highly altered ecosystems (e.g., farms, city parks, harbors) but neither a pristine ecosystem nor a highly altered ecosystem is scientifically better or worse — just different.

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Robert T. Lackey

Department of Fisheries and Wildlife

Oregon State University

Corvallis, Oregon 97331-3803

Office:    (541) 737-0569

Cell:        (541) 602-5904

Email:     Robert.Lackey@oregonstate.edu

Web:       http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/lackey/

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Robert T. LackeySee the source image

 

Is more and better science the key to resolving environmental policy debates?  Some scientists  — and many others without training in science — seem to think so.  The short answer, however, is that science is rarely, if ever, is the key.

But, how often have you heard this lament from scientists:

            “If we just had better science, or at least more science, more data, the best policy choice would be obvious and we could move on.  It is a lack of science that is the main obstacle to deciding what to do.”

This lament, or permutations of it, is often followed by a proposed course of action:

            “Fund us and we’ll provide you with the necessary scientific information to make for an easy decision!”

I know.  I’ve followed this script many times in the never-ending search for research funding.   It is the reality for those of us employed in the highly competitive world of research and consulting.

Here’s my confession.  When I was working as a research scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency, part of my job was to convince the EPA regulatory people (i.e., the folks with the money) that their main problem was really a lack of scientific information.  You know the marketing pitch:  send money, you’ll buy more science, and more science will solve your policy-making problem.

To prosper these days, a research scientist must play this game and play it well.  More money means you can hire additional staff, buy better equipment, publish more papers, and ascend the scientific pecking order.

But the fact is that science rarely drives policy debates, at least not policy debates that people care much about.

Let me illustrate with an example of how more science muddles a policy debate.  It is an example from far away, a case study that you can analyze with detachment and comfort, but one that illustrates what has become ever so typical in ecological policy.

Think about my part of the world, the Pacific Northwest, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and British Columbia.  For over three decades, there has been a highly polarized debate over what the primary purpose of the publicly owned forests should be.

Simplifying this complex policy debate down its core question:

a)   Should these public lands be managed for sustained timber production to foster economic development generally, and for rural communities, specifically?

or

 b)   Should these public lands be preserved for non consumptive uses such as recreation and species protection that primarily benefit urbanites?

But what have you read about?  About the plight of the northern spotted owl, right?  An at-risk species that almost no one, even most enviros, cared much about prior to its selection as the species of choice to trigger the Endangered Species Act.

Even more bizarre, the major political debate over choosing between two competing, and legitimate, policy goals collapsed into endless court cases revolving around the most esoteric life history details of this obscure species.

No wonder much of the public has become cynical about the political process — and the role of science.

Some policy advocates admit, at least in private, that selecting a charismatic species was a tactic to awaken the substantial legal power of the Endangered Species Act.  In short, the “scientific facts” about spotted owls became a legal weapon, a surrogate, used by advocates to achieve their primary policy goal:  to stop logging on public forests.

Conversely, other policy advocates, especially those promoting logging to support rural communities economically and meet domestic demand for lumber and paper, pitched science in a way that supported their policy goal:  to allow logging on public forests.

Great for policy advocates, they are free to use whatever tactics or tools work in policy debates, but for the credibility of scientists in the eyes of the public, it was very costly.

If, somehow, we could miraculously and instantly learn everything possible about spotted owls, the policy debate would continue because science has simply become a weapon in the larger policy war.

It is values which largely drive policy choices, not science.  Yes, science is important in assessing the consequences of each of the available policy options, but it is people’s values that drive which option is preferred.  Similarly, policy “win-win” only exists in the sham arguments pitched in election year political campaigns.  Every policy choice involves winners — and losers.  There are no free lunches;  an inconvenient truth for sure for scientists, the public, and decision-makers.

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Robert T. Lackey

Department of Fisheries and Wildlife

Oregon State University

Corvallis, Oregon 97331-3803

Office:    (541) 737-0569

Cell:        (541) 602-5904

Email:     Robert.Lackey@oregonstate.edu

Web:       http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/lackey/

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