Robert T. Lackey

Earlier this month, a colleague asked me if anything had changed in the twenty years since the publication of my op-ed about the prevalence of “delusional reality” regarding the future of wild salmon in California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Idaho.  He added, “perhaps you would write the paper differently today?”

To provide some context for my answer, here is a slightly edited version of the piece published in 2001 in Fisheries, the professional magazine of the American Fisheries Society:

# # # # #

Are we professional fisheries scientists collectively guilty of encouraging delusions about the possibilities of restoring wild salmon to the Pacific Northwest?

In my informal discussions with colleagues, most conclude that the likely scenario for wild salmon numbers (even assuming implementation of any of the hotly debated “restoration” proposals) is a continuing long-term downward trajectory in California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Idaho.

A fundamental basis for this sobering conclusion is that the Pacific Northwest’s human population (including British Columbia) will almost certainly grow dramatically through this century — from the current 14 million to between 40 and 100 million.  Predictions of population levels a century from now are contentious, but I have yet to find anyone who disputes the presumption that there will be many more people in the region by the end of this century.  Whether the number will be 40, 60, 80, or 100 million is contested, but the population will be several times higher.  A cursory examination of regional data depicting historical human population density/development and wild salmon distribution/abundance reveals a stark negative relationship.

Speaking as a scientist, and not as an advocate of any policy position or option, the assumed future level of the region’s human population is simply a factor (policy driver) to be considered in evaluating the future of wild salmon.  Given the predicted human population increase, the overall, long-term, downward trend in wild salmon abundance is nearly certain unless there are spectacular changes in the lifestyles of the region’s inhabitants.  But, apart from equivocal polling data, opaque political rhetoric, and grand statements of intent, there is little tangible evidence that most people are willing to make the substantial personal or societal changes needed to restore large runs of wild salmon.  I contend that the future of wild salmon is not hopeless or foreordained, but society has collectively shown scant willingness to adopt the policy choices necessary to reverse the long-term downward trend in wild salmon.

Thus, after considering ecological and societal context, most colleagues conclude, usually “off the record,” that by 2100 wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest will consist of mere remnants of pre-1850 runs.  None of the species likely will become extinct by 2100, but many stocks or populations will have disappeared, and those that remain will have small runs incapable of supporting appreciable fishing without technological interventions such as hatcheries or artificial spawning channels.  To visualize the most likely future, we only need to look at the remnant anadromous salmonid runs in the eastern United States, continental Europe, and the Asian Far East, especially China, Japan, and Korea.  At one time, each of these regions supported thriving populations of wild salmon.  They no longer do, nor is there any likelihood they will in the foreseeable future.

As society’s fisheries experts, do we perpetuate the delusion that the Pacific Northwest will (or could, absent pervasive lifestyle changes) support wild salmon in significant numbers —  given the current trajectory of the region’s human population growth coupled with most individuals’ unwillingness to reduce substantially their consumption of resources and standard of living?  It is not our role as scientists to assert that society should make the changes necessary to restore wild salmon, but our implicit public optimism about restoring wild salmon perpetuates an avoidance of reality.  Intended or not, we end up misleading the public.

Let me illustrate with a personal example.

A few years ago, I completed a manuscript that assessed the future of Pacific Northwest wild salmon for the Salmon 2100 Project.  Any assessment dealing with salmon always stimulates scientific and policy debate, but my primary conclusion was:

The near-certain growth in the human population in the Pacific Northwest through this century, coupled with little indication that most people will accept the enormous lifestyle changes necessary to perpetuate, much less restore, wild salmon, means that restoring “fishable” runs of wild salmon in California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Idaho is a policy objective that is not likely to be achieved.

Most of the several dozen fisheries scientists who reviewed the manuscript accepted the conclusion as realistic, even intuitively obvious, but the following were typical reactions to the overall message:

These people were not challenging the human population trajectories presented in the manuscript.  They accepted the population growth trajectory and the continuing unwillingness of most people to make the sacrifices necessary to reverse the downward trend in wild salmon.  There is, of course, a possibility that society will collectively adopt “voluntary simplicity” as a dominant lifestyle, but most readers did not expect such a change to transpire on a large scale.  Even so, the message, they argued, would be better received if it was cast in more upbeat terms.

“The message is correct, but it is too pessimistic.”

“You need to look for a way to tell the story more optimistically.”

“Such a pessimistic message is not fair to all those fisheries biologists in the trenches trying to do their best to save salmon.”

How can assessing the future of wild salmon be concurrently acknowledged as accurate and too pessimistic?  Should it not be a hallmark of fisheries scientists to provide realistic predictions of the future rather than either pessimistic or optimistic ones?

As expected, many reviewers offered the usual arguments about the relative importance of commercial, recreational, and Indian fishing, dams and their operation, agriculture, forestry, urbanization, roads and right-of-ways, pollution, changes in the climate of the ocean and atmosphere, competition and predation from exotic species, predation by marine mammals and birds, and various concerns about hatcheries and commercial aquaculture.  However, the overall conclusion of nearly all reviewers did not differ significantly.

Most fascinating was the recurring suggestion, even a plea, to “lighten up” and be more optimistic and positive in assessing the future of wild salmon.  I had written the article to be blunt, direct, and realistic, and I avoided both pessimism and optimism.  How could reviewers conclude that the manuscript was realistic in content and conclusion, but at the same time encourage me to abandon realism and honesty in favor of optimism — a suggestion that would mislead all but the most astute readers?

Several reviewers suggested that if my objective in writing the article was to help save wild salmon (it was not), then the accurate, realistic message would leave proponents dejected.  This common sentiment is captured by:

“You have to give those of us trying to restore wild salmon some hope of success.”

Conversely, a few veterans of the salmon wars confessed their regret over the “optimistic” approach that they had taken during their careers in fisheries, and they endorsed the “tell it like it is” tactic.  They felt that they had, especially early in their careers, given false hope about the effectiveness of fishways, hatcheries, and their agency’s ability to manage mixed stock fishing.  I was left with a feeling that many professional fisheries scientists have been, and still are, subtly pressured by employers, funding organizations, and colleagues to “spin” fisheries science and policy realism to accentuate optimism.

Other reviewers took professional refuge in the reality that senior management or policy bureaucrats define the priorities — and thus research questions and topics — often resulting in narrow, reductionist scientific information and assessments.  Rarely are fisheries scientists empowered to provide “big picture” assessments of the future of salmon.  Whether inadvertent or not, such information often misleads the public into endorsing false expectations of the likelihood of the recovery of wild salmon.

For many of us, such implicit optimism is a healthy, rewarding way to go through life.  Is adopting unfounded “professional” optimism a harmless adaptive behavior of little import?  After all, “think positive” slogans are a hallmark of many self-improvement programs.  What is wrong is that optimism does not convey what is happening with wild salmon, and it allows the public, elected officials, and fisheries managers to escape the torment of confronting triage.

Fisheries scientists should be realistic and avoid being either optimistic or pessimistic.  This professional stance does not covertly argue in favor of an “imperative” to save wild salmon regardless of society’s cost, nor does it necessarily support a “defeatist” strategy.  Such choices should be made by an informed public that is aware of the difficult tradeoffs.  Restoring wild salmon is only one of many competing, important priorities, and the public is entitled to be accurately informed about the long-term prospects of success.

It is easy to find comfort in debating the nuances of hatchery genetics, evolutionarily significant units, dam breaching, salmon barging, selective fishing regulations, predatory bird control, habitat restoration, atmospheric and oceanic climate, and unintentionally mislead the public about the realities of the situation with wild salmon.  As discomforting as it may be to disclose the future of wild salmon relative to society’s apparent values and preferences, our most helpful contribution as fisheries scientists is providing information and assessments that are policy-relevant but policy-neutral, understandable to the public and decision makers, and scrupulously realistic about the future.  Otherwise, we squander our professional credibility to become acolytes of delusion.

# # # # #

OK, now back to the question initially posed to me has the policy and scientific landscape for wild salmon changed over the past twenty years?  To answer bluntly . . . nothing substantive has changed from what I described in 2001.  In short, the simple, direct answer is, “No.” As I observe the political and policy landscape in 2021, the article could have been written today.

The policy drivers are fundamentally the same.  And further, there is no indication that the major salmon policy drivers and the public’s overarching competing policy priorities have changed over the most recent two decades, nor does major change appear imminent.

Speaking as a scientist, this situation is not “good” or “bad,” it just “is” — but this reality should be conveyed accurately to policy makers and the public.

For fisheries scientists, the answer should not precipitate either joy or sorrow, but rather it is simply a reality — a reality that scientists should present to policy makers and the public in an even-handed, understandable, candid, and honest manner.

No delusional reality. No conspiracy of optimism. No wishful thinking. Defend reality.

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59 thoughts on “Defending Reality — Revisiting Two Decades Later

  1. Bob [Lackey], The problems as many of us, I hope, identify are: water removal (over-population), global warming impacts (over-population), energy needs (over-population), immigration (over-population), pollution (over-population) and a lack of societal and political will to address the over-population gorilla.

    • Gary, I’m late in discovering this thread, but having read it, find your concise, first statement the most cogent one of all. From an environmental and conservation biology point of view we really can’t get very far by focusing on the technological fixes that might benefit one family of fish in the short term — profitable as that might be for keeping our jobs or forestalling attack by ginned up ideologues.

      Bob’s distinction between “normative” and “regular” science is useful, but on the other hand “professional scientists” and the “informed public,” are overlapping sets, and as members of the informed public, professional scientists have a special obligation to speak on alot moree than just factual issues. I don’t think that the rest of the public or decisionmakers should have great difficulty in separating factual information and value judgments about policy. Here are three examples:

      Human Population Increase, Economic Growth, and Fish Conservation: Collision Course or Savvy Stewardship?
      Karin E. Limburg, Robert M. Hughes, Donald C. Jackson, and Brian Czech, Fisheries 36:27-34. [ ]
      EXCERPT: [“Therefore we, as members of professional scientific societies, call on the AFS, religious leaders, scientists, economists, journalists, and politicians, working in concert with fisheries and other natural resources professionals, to support a markedly reduced ecological footprint for much of North America by advocating and deliberately moving towards zero then negative population growth and economic growth, first in the U.S. and then throughout the North American continent.” ]

      An impending water crisis in Canada’s western prairie provinces, D.W. Schindler & W.F. Donahue, PNAS, February 2006 (Quote: “It may prove wise to keep human populations in the dry WPP relatively low, to avoid the water scarcity that has already become a major problem in the southwestern United States and many other populous dryland areas of the world”)

      Big, cold and full: Population politics and the environment in Canada (talk abstract), Madeline Weld & David Schindler, 100th ESA Annual Meeting, Baltimore, August 13, 2015
      (Quote: “The myth that Canada is underpopulated is based on ecological illiteracy and an adherence to the fundamentalist ideology of economic growth. In addition, the promotion of growth is intertwined with an official policy of multiculturalism such that challenging growth for any reason, including environmental considerations, is fraught. Since over 80% of the Canadian population lives within 100 miles of the US border, Canada’s “real” size is much smaller than its geographic area.”

      Most scientists are content to just chatter away on such matters. Population growth is a phenomenon every nation state needs to have a rational policy on. The scientific societies and environmental organizations have proven globalist, gutless wonders on these matters. For Canada and the U.S. immigration is by far the biggest cause of population growth. If you want to have an effective voice in reducing immigration, you need to sign up with and support any or all of the following:
      Population Institute Canada
      Immigration Watch Canada
      Federation for American Immigration Reform
      Scientists and Environmentalists for Population Stabilization
      Californians for Population Stabilization

  2. A Circumpolar Salmonid Belt has been situated latitudinally at the Northern Edge of modernist civilization. In the Great Laurentian Basin, salmonines have long been perceived as indicators of the quality of waters that have been abused by a wide variety of human stresses. With climate warming and further dense settlement by humans with polluting life styles and industry this conceptual Belt may be shifting northwards, but a Salmonid Belt may persist? An overlapping Percid Circumpolar Belt may shift northward and into a partially vacant circumpolar niche? Welcome tough percids?

  3. Good blog Bob.

    I remember giving a lecture about 10 years ago at a salmon conference of some sort that focussed on salmon conservation and restoration. My theme was (like yours) that salmon stocks in the PNW were seriously imperilled, that most would disappear, and that maintaining fishable stocks was probably a pipe dream. I was referring mostly to the impending impact of climate change and said that, if they (conference participants) wanted to do some good, they should forget about where salmon were abundant now and focus on forested, groundwater fed streams that might retain liveable temperatures longer into a changing climate regime. Needless to say, that message went over like a fart in church. I did suggest that if we wanted to save salmon we should be looking to protect suitable habitats in the Arctic. This elicited the comment that salmon in the Arctic might be bad for resident species. But those resident species, to the extent that they are cold adapted, face an even worse problem of declining thermal habitat than salmon.

    My last genuine scientific paper, published in 2011, examined the cumulative effects of climate change on salmon, primarily sockeye, with a similar depressing outlook. It was ignored for most of the next decade, if citations and/or requests for reprints is any measure. Not a message anyone wanted to hear. Last couple of years it has become quite popular. Does that mean fishery science is waking up???

    Since retirement most of my energy has gone into trying to raise awareness of climate change and its probable impacts and what we can do to get control of GHG emissions. Many others, much better at reaching the public and our politicians than I, have taken up the challenge. All, so far, to little avail. Or, certainly not to enough avail. One of the fellows I work with, a former member of the BC legislature, commented the other day that he had begun so confident that we could get a movement going. But so far the vast majority prefer to ignore the issue. Even when wildfire or flood roars through their community and the scientists say, “that was likely caused by climate change”, as they are now starting to do, the only concern is when and how to rebuild and continue their lives as before.

    Colonialism, and systemic racism, are the headline catchers these days. The local indigenous community, Penticton Indian Band, is trying to restore sockeye salmon to Okanagan lake. There is only oral history that says there were sockeye in the lake (although it does have kokanee, so presumably sea run came here at some point). The local community is 100% behind this initiative. There are still sockeye in the river system but Okanagan River is at the upper limit of temperature tolerance for sockeye so one has to wonder if there is any hope at all of success, even for a short time. No discussion of whether this is biologically a reasonable idea, only that it is socially and culturally necessary and the fish will just have to play along.

    “For as long as the rivers shall flow”

    Mike Healey

  4. It’s hard to believe that 20 years have passed since the original article. I agree with you now as I did back then. I sit in too many meetings where “happy talk” is the norm rather than addressing the present reality and providing action options based on the current science with the uncertainties outlined to the decision makers.

  5. The decision we adults make, either with selfless wisdom or self-centered folly, becomes our legacy to all generations—present and future. In this sense, the social-environmental sustainability of our planet is determined by the irreversible decisions we impose on it. I say “irreversible” because we cannot go back in time and make a different choice. I say “impose” because we give the Earth no voice by honoring the integrity of its biophysical functions. Every choice is a fork in the road. If we choose the right-hand fork, we must accept everything it has to offer while foregoing everything the left-hand fork would have offered—and vise-versa.

    With respect to the salmon, they are too often seen solely as a commodity. In doing so, we ignore the fact that they not only feed us but also, as top predators in the world’s oceans, play a vital role in controlling the phytoplankton-eating prey species that nudge a warming climate by over-consuming CO2 sequestering plants, thus helping to warm the ocean, the wind, and the global climate. For us humans to have a quality life, we must—first and foremost—protect and nurture the global ecosystem that supports us—or we continue to author our own version of a Greek Tragedy at the expense of all life on Earth.

  6. Bob,
    Interesting blog but it still does not tell me what should be done. I understand “defend reality” but whose reality? I accept, as do most others, I presume, that salmonid populations are not going to continue forever the way they were a hundred years ago or even now. But, how much do we agree on the downside? Perhaps I am being naive, but I still see hope for improvements in the Columbia dam system and other environmental factors. Not back to the Garden of Eden but not to a wasteland either. Many will believe it is still worth fighting for setting the bar as high as can be done. Without that fight, pessimism rules and we can see the end.

    Look at the Bison and wolves and bears and maybe even the wolverine. They will never be back to what they once were but their future seems brighter right now than it was thirty years ago, due primarily to changes in regulation of human predation.

    Good blog and food for thought.

    Ron Garton

    “Protection & Restoration of Salmon Habitat:
    Lessons Learned Around the World
    October 15, 2001
    Wells Conference Center, University of Maine at Orono

    Remarks and Discussion Period
    By Matthew Scott, CFS, Emeritus, AFS

    Good afternoon everyone, my name is Matthew Scott, Certified Fisheries Scientist, American Fisheries Society and I am here today to give you all a “reality check”. My comments are not to be taken negative but we must face reality. As fisheries or aquatic scientist professionals we must not create delusions about restoring wild Atlantic salmon to Maine ‘s rivers. As Fred Kirchies pointed out this AM that the downward spiral to 50 adults for all of the EAS listed rivers is not good news. In fact, it is my opinion that Atlantic salmon in these rivers are on the threshold of existence and will become extinct in the very near future. This downward trend is due to human population growth demanding more of the resources that exist in these riverine habitats.

    Bob Lackey a friend and colleague of many of us in this room wrote an essay in the June 2001 issue of Fisheries. His defense of reality is the basis of what I am about to say to you all this afternoon. He focused on the west coast wild Pacific salmon but he briefly mentions our dilemma in the east for wild Atlantic salmon. His philosophy fits very well for our scenario in Maine.

    I do not contend that the future of wild Atlantic salmon is hopeless but society collectively show a scant willingness to adopt policy changes necessary to reverse the downward trend. Our legislature and current administration will not adequately fund the program for recovery.

    We have spent over $100 million in the course of 50 years under a Maine Commission to restore wild Atlantic salmon in Maine and to no avail. Facing the likelihood of trying to reverse this continued decline will require new technologies and working with the aquaculture industry plus a new commitment of funding by our policy makers. We must find cooperative solutions.

    When I worked for Project SHARE for the Downeast Rivers Jim Robinson from the Dennys River watershed Council asked me when we would see cathable runs of Atlantic salmon back in the river. I responded saying 10 generations of salmon, about 50 years or perhaps never. I did not want to create implicit public optimism about the restoration of historic runs which would perpetuate an avoidance of reality. Jim’s response was, “then not in our lifetime” and he said, “you are being realistic of course” and my response was yes.

    So, my message today from Bob Lackey’s essay is that I am not being too pessimistic nor do I tell a story of more optimism so the pessimistic message is fair to all you fisheries Biologists out there in the trenches as you are trying to do your best to save wild Atlantic salmon in Maine.

    I think fisheries science should provide realistic predictions for the future and try to avoid being optimistic or pessimistic. We must be blunt, direct and realistic. With my involvement in the downeast salmon wars my motto was always, “tell it like it is”. Now I have been there and done this as most policy makers try to put a positive twist on fisheries science to accentuate optimism.

    I think Les Stanfield provided the big picture this AM and the concept for the future with reality. Too much optimism allows policy makers and officials to escape being tormented when confronting triage. Les focused-on habitat protection and acquisition which is reality. It will provide habitat for many other species besides Atlantic salmon.

    Restoring wild Atlantic salmon is only one of the competing public priorities and the public is entitled to be informed about any long-term success and habitat acquisition is one policy they can understand and will support. They see this as a long-term and successful approach.

    In Jim Martin’s presentation, this PM I applaud. His optimism for the State of Oregon is high but he too has read Bob Lackey’s Essay and has a great respect for his work and knows Bob well. But I think Jim is too optimistic as the human population increase is being ignored which is an avoidance of reality. He did a great job in the delivery of his speech.

    So, I conclude that as discomforting as it is or may be to face reality, we must provide information and education that are policy related, policy neutral and understandable to the public and decision makers that are, realistic otherwise we create delusion and lose credibility. I served as Deputy Commissioner for three years in the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife so I have been there and done that.

    As Bob Lackey indicated and which I subscribe to, we are not peddling doom and gloom, preaching defeatism or aiding and abetting the enemy. So, the best thing we can do is to protect and enhance aquatic habitat for Atlantic salmon as all species will benefit in the end. This broad concept will probabably do more than what we have done over the past 50 years.

    PS: Bob received two letters of praise for his Essay to the Editor by Gerald Bouck and Bill Otway in the September issue of Fisheries. The above report to you all is my response and thanks to Bob.

  8. Well said, Bob! [Lackey] And if you changed “salmon” to “climate change” or any of a number of other environmental issues, the conversation would be just the same. 😥. Watching the societal reaction to pandemic lockdowns and other behavioral changes that are necessary to directly save hundreds of thousands of human lives does not give me much hope for long-term successes for environmental issues.

  9. Yes Anne, this article from a fellow scientist encapsulates what all of us scientists are up against, be it regarding a concrete problem like COVID19 or something as mind-bogglingly abstract to the average person as climate change. How many of us can relate? I contend that somehow, somewhere, a drastically different sort of message needs to get out to the masses that wakes “the wise ones” up before it’s too late. The optimist in me thinks that such a different message exists…it’s just got to be forged and conveyed in a compelling and entertaining way.

  10. Bob [Lackey], I think I said to you then “Well at least you recognize the problem.” I might also have said that to those of us in the Columbia Basin federal agency policy circles at the time, it was a painful and uncomfortable elaboration of the obvious. Why “painful and uncomfortable?’ because we weren’t just fisheries scientists and we realized how quixotic our jousting with the water buffalos and power interests was (and still is).


    Paul Brouha

  11. That nothing has fundamentally changed in 20 years characterizes many wicked problems. Last term, an enthusiastic undergraduate asked me why my generation (read old) hadn’t attempted to address climate change. I reached over and pulled out a document on climate policy that I helped develop from around 1995 during my time in New Zealand’s Ministry for the Environment and shared it with the class. The class responded that, apart from the font, it could have been written today. Salmon in the PNW falls into the same category. Infact, apart from dates and return numbers, the talk I will give in two weeks to my class on Pacific Salmon is the same one I first gave in 2006.

  12. Here’s my own recent newsletter article that’s relevant to the “biz as usual” attitude, as if the world’s growing problems can be ignored as things go back to “normal” (NOT!):

    Vadas, B. Jr. 2020. The future of Olympia’s urban zoning in the face of covid-19 and climate change. Works In Progress (Olympia, WA) 31(3): 14 (

    -Bob V.

  13. To take toxic positivity a step further, here’s an NPR article showing how, very often, depressed people actually see the world more realistically than so called “normal people”. Unfortunately, toxic positivity allows politicians – and others – to keep kicking the can down the road on so many issues…and for most of us following this blog, it’s most obvious regarding the salmon conundrum. “Baumeister says that starting in the ’80s, psychological researchers started aggressively promoting positive thinking because a positively skewed view of oneself and the world was seen as more productive and more helpful just in general for everyone, but especially for depressed people….Depressed people seemed to hit it pretty much on the head. They got the answers right. It’s the normal, non-depressed people who twist things and see things as better than they are.”

    So, you don’t want to discount insights that a depressed person might have…no matter how much of a “Debbie Downer” they sound like!

  14. And here’s the ultimate song to describe unrealistic positivity, esp. relevant during this time of pandemic when people’s maladaptive behaviors are fueling (a) increased Covid-19 virulence (cf. Ewald 1983) & (b) human natural selection:

    Bobby McFerrin – Don’t Worry Be Happy (Official Video)

    -Bob V.

    Ewald, P.W. 1983. Host-parasite relations, vectors, and the evolution of disease severity. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 14: 465-485.

  15. There’s optimism and there is reality. The reality is salmon populations will never be the same because their habitat has been forever altered. Over 50% of Columbia and Snake River tributary streams are either compromised or inaccessible. Mainstem dams have turned the Columbia River system into reservoirs. Flow and temperature regimes have been altered. Smallmouth bass have taken over the John Day, Yakima, and Grande Ronde rivers, among other tributaries and the mainstem. Walleye are displacing native northern pike minnow as the apex predator and eliminating populations of sculpin, sandroller and lamprey ammocoetes along the way. Did I mention the number one mortality factor for adult salmon, i.e., harvest? All that aside, I have no problem trying to save salmon and steelhead populations. However, recovery goals need to be revisited against the current and future template of human development activities, not the historical record.

  16. Yes, realistic restoration is likely to be to a different standard than a pristine, historical baseline could offer, esp. in the face of climate change. My concern is that we give up & just manage for mediocrity. Despite harsh reality, I hope that we can better understand the constraints when figuring out what a reasonable salmon-recovery scenario looks like. Optimists don’t want us to give up, & we shouldn’t, but let’s try not to “promise the stars” in what we’re able to accomplish. The way that state agencies are funded now, selling licenses for harvesting is a major drive. Time for thinking “outside the box”…

  17. Thanks, Bob [Lackey], for alerting me to your new resource blog. I’ve been following its early contributions with interest. It’s clear to me that your Fisheries essay has influenced–reinforced, in some cases—thinking within the fisheries profession.

    I’ve had Malthusian worries since I was a teenager, so your projections of northwest fishery outcomes made sense to me even as a distant observer. It’s hard to dwell on doomsday outcomes, though, and still pursue a satisfying life. Most of us take on incrementally rewarding projects for their own value and hope that Armageddon will be deferred by cumulative small successes. Fishery science and management have made several helpful advances in this way, however ephemeral they may prove to be.

    I’m not too exercised by the terms “optimistic” and “pessimistic;” they’re essentially self-referential: If your projected (or hoped-for) outcome is better than mine, yours is optimistic; if worse, yours is pessimistic. Both attitudes have potential value: optimism might lead to adoption of a “better way”; pessimism might lead to correction of a “fatal flaw.”

  18. It was nice to be reminded of this reality after 20 years. I always read about salmon management and science because of their global importance and many innovations that begin here. So I really expected changes from the 2001 reality by 2021. Sadly, I must agree with the “no substantive change” conclusion. As I began jotting down my thoughts about this post, I got carried away … either seeking some miraculous examples of substantive wild salmon recovery in recent literature. I gave up quickly when similar stories emerged. I posted my thoughts on Virginia Tech Ichthyology blog because the notion of being an optimist in a pessimist’s world is so essential to our. well being as scientists and managers. see it at

  19. Nice blog article, Don; will you try to publish it in ‘Fisheries’ or another journal?

    Since returning to the Pacific coast, my East Asian friends have encouraged me to embrace Tao & Confucius teachings, notably the Yin-Yang balance. This is akin to optimist vs. pessimist behaviors, which we also need to keep in balance to be effective natural-resource mgrs. & scientists. Yes, celebrate the small victories in our professional & personal lives, but also be realistic about what the problems really are, to actually make headway towards real solutions. That means taking calculated risks, as I’ve done in my present job.

  20. Here’s an article I wrote a few years ago for Earth Day, in which I mention Bob’s article from twenty years ago. I was one of the biologists in the trenches shortly after the salmon of the Pacific Northwest were listed as threatened or endangered…and in some ways, I still am one but I’m up in Alaska (you can run, but you can’t hide). This article is a little dated, but the discussion of solastalgia is germane, and will continue to be more so with time. If you’ve never heard of that term, you’ll be hearing more of it I’m sure.

    I state in the article, that I might just be the world’s biggest optimist. Why? Well, some say that everything happens for a reason (isn’t that toxic positivity?). If that’s the case, then I haven’t hit rock bottom while trying to save the wild salmon of Idaho for nothing. This may sound crazy, but it’s the optimist in me that believes there could be a full-length feature film made based loosely on my life, a life dedicated to the fishes of the world. It would also be based on reality, the exact thing that this blog is focused on; it would basically defend the reality as we here know it.

    It wouldn’t be all gloom and doom, and it would have some humor. Oscar Wilde said, “If you’re going to tell people the truth, make them laugh – otherwise, they’ll kill you.” This movie, would however, have a very powerful big-picture environmental message, one that would get the average person to never see themselves – particularly their place in the environment – the same way ever again.

    Some of what I discuss in that article was so traumatic, that I still have difficulty talking about it thirty years later. It’s for that reason that I will never write the book or screenplay for this movie I envision. Someone will have to tease the particulars out of me.

    So, if any of you know a Hollywood director or talented screenwriter…send them my way. I’m serious, very serious.

  21. Reading the comments on this blog, many familiar thoughts ran through my head. After 50 years working in resource management, I have to say that I did not find any new themes or perspectives. I do not make this comment with any disrespect or arrogance; it is just the reality of resource management. Resource management is the art of the possible despite the wishes of many that the case would be otherwise. That does not mean resigning oneself to mediocrity or worse but it also does not mean tilting at windmills.

    Most of us in Western societies are overall quite comfortable and want to keep things in the future the way they were in the past. (If we were living in a different time or place that might not be the case.) For that reason change is resisted strenuously at all levels. Nowhere is this behaviour more evident than when it comes to our natural resources. But is this an unrealistic desire? My answer is a resounding YES.

    Further there are some things that we can change/manage at a technical level and even at a political level and other trends are beyond the control of human societies; perhaps not conceptually but certainly so at a practical level. This is where the art of the possible comes in.

    The 2001 paper is effectively a tangible statement of this truism. As has been noted a driving force behind the future of PNW salmonids and many other species as well, is human population growth and the continual expansion of our collective footprint in terms of resource consumption and waste production. The logical reaction as a resource manager is to address this root cause; something I have dabbled in from time to time. In 1985, I was co-author on a paper about weak and strong sustainability that is still quote today. That paper points out that true sustainability (i.e. strong sustainability) is unattainable; ultimately, even with a greatly reduced and evolutionarily/technically retrogressive human population

    So how do we address the root cause? Or more importantly, is the root cause manageable? What is the root cause?

    As has been mentioned in a previous comment, human population growth is a central cause. Is population growth manageable?

    I attended a seminar about 20 years or so ago being given by the former Canadian Minister of the Environment. His seminar was a travelogue of the “environmental disasters” that he had to face over his 10 years of tenure; all disasters that I was intimately familiar with and spent many days pondering how best manage. At the end of his seminar, I asked him a question. I noted that all of the disasters he described could be traced directly to Canada’s expanding population. I then asked him whether in his role as Minister of the Environment, he had raised the issue of Canada’s target sustainable population size at the cabinet table. His reaction has had an indelible impact on me.

    He looked at me rather curiously and stated that no cabinet, now or in the foreseeable future, would ever consider such a question. The political and social ramifications are beyond imagination and would be political suicide.

    I recently asked a similar question to a colleague who is a leading proponent of sustainability and reducing our global ecological footprint. Despite his strident advocacy for more modest lifestyles with diminished consumption of resources and less production of waste, he bridled at the notion of establishing a target population for Canada. His argument immediately pivoted to matters relating to social justice and equity.

    After many years of tilting against the human population “enemy”, I have concluded doing so is not realistic; at least, not at this stage in human evolution. My conclusion is that human evolution is not something that we collectively have the insight and technical understanding, let alone sufficiently advanced social evolution, to “manage” at the present time and perhaps never.

    So where does this leave us as resource managers? I think we can nibble away at the edges of the root cause. It is like a flea on an elephant; make the best of the current situation but changing the course the elephant is going to take, is unrealistic. Instead, the best we can do is try to anticipate the course the elephant is going to take and make the best of what lies ahead.

    Within this context, resource management can still make major improvements to the quality of our lives and our environment; but as Dirty Harry said, “A man has to know his limits.”

    I hope this comment does not come across as pessimistic optimistic or defeatist; it is none of these. This comment is intended to provide meaning and realism to the challenges of resource management and a call of encouragement to continue your dedication on behalf of everyone practising the art of the possible.

  22. Well, if we can’t ethically control human-population size, then nature will have to do it for us, e.g., the “Spanish” flu & Covid-19 separated by a century. This is the way that nature will make us change. Humans are not above the laws of nature.

    • For sure. However, this battle with “Nature” is much more complicated than is the case with other species. The population/overpopulation feedback cycle is complicated by human ingenuity and our ability to share collectively and rapidly communicate and learn from this ingenuity. Unlike the Spanish flu or the black plague or any other historical outbreak, in less than a year, millions of humans are being vaccinated against COVID. A truly remarkable feat that has potentially large implications in terms of the global population.

      What are the limits of human ingenuity? Those limits will define the maximum population limit but that limit may not be defined by the resources of our current planet. Humans are on the cusp of interplanetary migration. Further if humans learn to harness fusion, energy is effectively no longer the primary population limiting factor.

      Sounds far fetched; perhaps but for a lot of young people starting out their careers, not so much so as for the long tooths.

      Life will be different in the future but that is a truism. Will the Ehrlichs’ Population Bomb become a reality? That forecast like many others of its kind have been proven repeatedly to be based on ceteris paribus assumptions that have underestimated grossly human ingenuity. Are there limits to human ingenuity? Likely but right now they are not obvious so population limits are hard to foresee.

  23. This has been an interesting discussion. Not surprisingly, it revealed broad support for Bob Lackey’s call to defend reality in scientific assessments. The purpose of science, after all, is to understand and convey reality.

    (Speaking truth to power is not always risk-free; messengers warrant admiration.)

    Of considerable interest to me, though, was the frankness with which some respondents recalled their personal distress when the work they and others invested failed to improve salmon returns. The psychological undercurrents of fishery conservation efforts never came through to me when I edited papers for AFS. Better late than never, I guess. Sooner would have been better, though.

    I found value in all the contributions to this blog, but I especially appreciate Ed Hanna’s lucid and humane essay on the art of the possible.

    Thanks to all. Stay well.

  24. After re-reading Bob Lackey’s now 20 year old paper and the thoughtful recent commentaries given by a number of people on Bob’s contribution, something strikes me as still missing from the debate–the likely reality that fisheries agencies are now probably poorly positioned from the perspective of their organizational structure and the “big bets” they placed on their freshwater research focus paying off with improved knowledge. As a result, government’s allocation of human capital and physical assets mostly to the freshwater phase of the salmon problem to deal with the oncoming marine climate change problems may be poorly directed.

    Prior to publishing a recent paper comparing the coastwide survival of salmon (Welch et al 2021; I offered two government biologists co-authorship in recognition of the work they put into helping us come to grips with the data. Both declined, citing the heat they would get from their agencies for being authors of a controversial paper questioning the status quo. This was probably a wise career decision on their part. (I speak from experience that DFO would have been intensely unhappy if I had co-authored this paper back when I was still employed by the federal government—agencies of course love to see their science staff recognized for doing “God’s Work”, but not if it means rocking the ship of state!).

    More broadly, it speaks to the issue of being honest—speak up and make the very obvious point that nearly everywhere is now reporting numerically equivalent survival levels and ye shall be punished… your colleagues will pile on you and call you stupid or traitorous (or both) and subject your work to intense professional scrutiny. Not for the faint of heart, of course, and definitely not wise if you still have a mortgage to pay off. But this is the reality that faces someone going up against the “consensus view” and pointing out that the numerical value of SARs are nearly the same everywhere—it threatens jobs and that carefully managed status quo stability that government biologists (or at least their managers) treasure.

    In a separate paper in preparation I am terming this a virtue trap, because biologists keep falling into the trap of doing things that are virtuous (defending freshwater habitat and therefore being good conservationists) rather than getting to the heart of the salmon issue (reversing the major declines in survival, which are probably marine and therefore currently impossible to address… but keep many employed and feeling worthy by working on freshwater habitat issues). The result is no change in the status quo.

    So, what is better—continue working primarily on freshwater issues that no one has demonstrated can be increased by anywhere near enough to effectively compensate for decreasing marine survival, or begin work on identifying the location and causes of poor marine survival in the hope that a way to improve survival may become evident? In my view, the first is virtuous but ineffective—at least as currently practised—while the other may be too hard to solve—but we won’t know unless we try.

  25. David, we met many yrs. ago when you were still w/ DFO. I subsequently reviewed a few of your draft papers, but felt that you were rather obsessed w/ ocean ecology at the expense of concern for freshwater factors, notably dams that we know are causing much salmon problems. That’s why some are getting breached now, & there’s even a renewed push to breach the lower Snake R. dams that will likely have great benefits for anadromous salmonid, sturgeon, & lamprey reproductive success.

    I got involved w/ Columbia/Snake R. salmon-flow issues many yrs. ago when the mainstem irrigators got a UW consultant to claim that only oceanic factors matter, so why not allow a lot more water diversions for farmers? Well, we saw what happened in the Klamath R. w/ the salmon & sucker deaths when this “logic” prevailed, but I was determined NOT to see that happen again w/ the Columbia R. basin. We presented oral & written evidence to the Natl. Acad. Sci., who fortunately made a better decision than they did for the Klamath R. So now, increased dam spills are partially mitigating the mainstem-flow issues, but that doesn’t eliminate the predator-rich reservoirs where exotic spiny-ray fishes pick the native fishes off, not to mention northern pikeminnows & higher vertebrates in the tailwaters.

    Once during an Trout Unlimited-Olympia Chapter mtg., we had 2 loggers come talk to us about why the Wild Olympics Coalition was a “bad idea” b/c only oceanic factors matter for Pac. salmonids based on the 1 study that they cherrypicked (perhaps 1 of your papers :)? I took ’em to task for that, as from what I’ve seen for anadromous fishes, freshwater & marine habitats have about equal importance for determining their success.

    At another TU-Oly. mtg., we had the leader of the Coastal Conservation Association come talk to us about how dams weren’t important for Columbia R. salmonids, but rather pinnipeds were “the problem”. I took him to task for that, pointing out that the dams were allowing smorgasbords in the tailwaters, after which he denied that he ever said that dams weren’t important!

    I’d be more comfortable if we just said that both fresh- & saltwater habitat conditions are important, & let’s try to study both, something that I got started on in the late 90s when I did a CA postdoc. Subsequently, here in WA, I once guest-taught a popular community-college class online on fisheries oceanography, so that students realized that NOT just freshwater conditions mattered.

    But let’s get to the heart of the matter re: Bob Lackey’s ever-relevant concerns. We have a hard time recognizing that we’ve overpopulated the planet, requiring us to build more energy sources (e.g., dams, but also other supposedly renewable energy sources outlined in the online documentary “Planet of the Humans”) & causing more oceanic warming & acidification, not to mention the present pandemic. I believe that we’ve now entered a new era of human history, for which nature is doing the “batting” as we must defend ourselves vs. pandemics & climate disasters. We really may be drawing closer to a “Soylent Green” scenario, esp. w/ human rights being disrespected in a big way.

    So yes, let’s see more oceanic work to complement the freshwater research & mgmt., but also recognize that the 4 H’s need more than lip service. Harvesting is a big issue for Pac.-salmonid abundances, along w/ hydropower dams, hatcheries, & habitat problems that cut across fresh- & saltwater boundaries. But let’s do it in a non-polarizing way, so that we avoid the political quagmire that’s presently damaging the USA. Keep in mind that when I 1st came to work in WA, I gave a seminar on my CA work & “raised the hackles” of freshwater biologists who thought that I was overemphasizing oceanic matters, though I would never say that freshwater factors were unimportant. There’s a lot of sensitivity on this issue, but I try to hold the middle, objective ground on it.

    • I remember those conversations, Bob! [Vadas] I will agree with you that FW factors are important because if salmon survival fails at any point in the life cycle the adult returns necessarily go to zero. However, I would disagree with you that your intuitive guess that the freshwater & marine habitats are about equally important. You (& many others) probably base that conclusion on smolt survival through the FCRPS being about 53% on average, while survival to adult return is 1% for Snake R Spring Chinook.

      I will just be a bit mysterious here because I am currently working my way through a long draft of a paper taking a fresh look at this very issue, but I will leave you and others reading this with a surprising number to contemplate. Put baldly, smolt survival through the entire FCRPS constitutes 1/7.2 (14%) of the factors determining the SAR, if the SAR is 1%–so the role of all the dams is far smaller than most folks currently think.

      I do agree with you that both FW & marine factors are important and it is not my intent or claim that we should “throw FW issues under the bus”. However, if the ocean influences are as large as I have outlined above, then the real risk is that we will falsely attribute aspects of the poor return to FW factors when in fact they are due to the poorly understood marine problems.

  26. Having been around, primarily, western WA anadromous salmonids for about 45 years as a researcher and front-line manager I believe that we know, rather clearly, what anadromous salmonids need to be abundant. They needs lots of clean, cold water, flows in concert with precipitation, functional floodplains, intact estuaries for transitioning, spawning escapements necessary to drive the aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, a marine environment that provides the necessary food supplies, predators in balance with prey, and so on. But, societally we are unwilling to provide these. We must have fisheries, especially mixed stock types, because of societal desires. We do nothing to control human population and each additional person takes resources from the wild ecosystem. Couple this with agencies whose survival depends on satisfying the political needs of society. At the end of the day, saving/preserving/restoring robust populations of anadromous salmonids will require sacrifice that society won’t accept. As one of my bosses said, “They’re just managing the rate of extinction.” But I also learned that challenging “policy” was a recipe for non-promotion, transfers, and such.

  27. I would add to my previous reply that there seems to be a cottage industry, probably not just in fisheries but in most contentious sciences, whose goal is to discredit, or at least downplay, results that their organization does not approve of. It is my belief that, contrary to many others, there is no one “Silver Bullet” to save salmon. Certainly dams are a problem, but the removal won’t by itself restore runs. Reducing hatchery planting, replacing culverts, and on and on are all things we need to do but since one won’t fix it all, it can be “proven” that we need to do something else.

  28. Another way to think perhaps upside down is to ask the question, “What if we wanted to extirpate salmon?” What would we do and how likely would success be?

    In my personal experience, I tried to rid a house of cock roaches and in another two attempts, I tried to rid my yard of two annoying invasive plants. And I was mostly successful but it was hard work on a small area. I focused the cock roach attack on their habitat in the kitchen…particularly I got rid of all water, plugged/caulked all cracks and hiding spots. Then I added a bit of boric acid on their trails. This actually worked in one house in Athens, GA. I fought blackberry in my back yard in Corvallis, by mostly trampling, mowing, covering with tarps. This still did not kill all of it… I had to dig out the root balls to finally get rid of it. It was quite an effort but worked. More recently I tried to get rid of a non-native strangling sort of vine plant in my 1 acre yard in Mount Shasta, CA. I would try to pull every plant I found–particularly before they seeded. I pulled probably over several thousand plants over a three-year period. That did not work quite as well as it seemed there was a large seed source in the soil and they kept coming back and I couldn’t find every plant. But after about 3 years there is only 10 % of the plants. So just removing the adults was not as effective, especially in a r-selected, weedy type of population.

    This taught me that killing off an entire population of an established community is actually pretty difficult. You have to work hard at it to get them all. I think salmon are pretty tough and I could probably get rid of salmon in a single stream reach but I would guess it would be difficult to get rid of them all in a region. It would take concerted efforts of lots of people.

    So how are we doing? We seem to be killing adults fairly well with harvests. From my participation in the Trinity River restoration effort in northern California, I learned we do harvest perhaps half and maybe more of the adults. But that does not work by itself for an r-selected population. We are also have put up blockages to their spawning grounds, but again, not all are streams are effectively blocked. Salmon can be pretty good at getting up the stream. In California, particularly the Scott River which is the last inland (non-coastal) basin that still has a viable native coho population they are trying an interesting method of drying entire streams via irrigation during the summer but it seems there are still remaining pockets of reproduction and juvenile rearing.

    So I think we are going have to put up with salmon for a while longer and possibly accept that unless we do more and work harder, they will likely persist at low levels. That seems to be where we are now and for most of the time I have lived in the Pacific Northwest (when I took a job at Bob Lackey’s EPA lab in 1988). In my humble opinion, I think the current habitat is too good to expect total extirpation especially from what I have observed over the last 25 years of fish surveys on the Oregon coastal streams on public lands. We would probably need intense regional climate warming and change in precipitation and maybe change in ocean conditions to really knock them out. And then they will probably just move up to Alaska anyway.

    • I don’t disagree with you that completely extirpating an aquatic species from a large part of its entire range in continental North America would be difficult. (Wolves or bears, much less so).

      However, the legal reality for salmon in the US is that they are not allowed to get to “too small a population size”, which is much easier to achieve than complete extirpation. As J. Hal Michael alluded to in his post above, there are “cottage industries” of ENGOs dedicated to saving salmon and further cottage industries dedicated to both habitat restoration and “studying” the problem. All of those need their funding to continue, so change that might threaten the status quo is viewed as a problem. So we have the current conundrum– significant fisheries are allowed on “endangered” species, recovery goals are set at productivity levels only attained decades ago, and large groups of people need the current funding models to remain as they are or threaten their livelihoods. It is not a good environment for thoughtful self-criticism of how well previous efforts to “recover” salmon have succeeded and, indeed, there is plenty of evidence that agencies act to discipline their staff who break rank with the current orthodoxy. Little wonder that real evidence of real recovery is evident!

      • I would disagree that recovery goals are set on some “historic” level. First, when WDF initially set the escapement goals for Chinook salmon in Puget Sound they clearly stated that the goals would not seed the known available habitat. Further, the Feds have set “Recovery Exploitation Rates” for some Puget Sound Chinook that are higher than estimated MSY exploitation rates. Gotta keep those fisheries going.

  29. I agree w/ Hal that it’s “death by a 1000 cuts” for Pac. salmonids, which was the conclusion my past CA research:

    Vadas, R.L. Jr. 2003. Ecohydrologic and macrohabitat assessment of California coastal and bay streams: southern limiting factors for imperiled aquatic vertebrates (abstract). Page 20 in A. Brinson and seven coeditors. Abstracts for the International IFIM Users’ Workshop. Colorado State University, Office of Conference Services. Fort Collins, CO (

    And my predilection for considering fresh- & saltwater factors to be roughly equal initially came from this CA study:

    Kope, R.G., and L.W. Botsford. 1990. Determination of factors affecting recruitment
    of chinook salmon Oncorhynchus tshawytscha in central California. Fishery
    Bulletin 88: 257-269 (

    And David, doesn’t it bother you that cynical people are using your results to downplay the importance of freshwater conditions? Likewise, I’m bothered when envir. mgrs. take credit for freshwater-project success when good oceanic conditions caused salmon “recovery”. Many yrs. ago, a consultant compared 2 yrs. of differing flow regimes in WA’s Methow R. watershed, concluding that lower flows were good for salmon. I effectively counteracted that by pointing out that (a) the lower-flow yr. was during a better oceanic regime & (b) a more-holistic analysis across yrs. would be needed to tease out biophysical relationships (not just N=2). Nice try, though.

    If I understand you correctly, David, most Pac.-salmon abundance fluctuations comes from oceanic conditions. If so, then landlocked salmonids should have less population fluctuations, right? Not the case for the adfluvial-trout run that I’m studying on the Olympic Peninusla, which has declined precipitously despite lack of oceanic rearing, albeit such an inland run got hammered by the oceanic-caused drought of 2015. Our way of trying to recover the population is thru invasive-weed control, as reed canarygrass has spread greatly there since the 2002-2003 drought. That’s something tangible that we can do to try to recover this isolated trout run.

    Hence, I’d prefer a more even-handed approach that recognizes the importance of cumulative impacts that include both fresh- & saltwater factors. And hypothesis testing is underway w/ dam breaching, for which we’re seeing Pac. salmonids recolonize lost habitat. Hopefully, this leads to increased escapements that we don’t simply harvest more to lose the benefits of marine-derived nutrients.

    • Bob [Vadas]: As to your question: “And David, doesn’t it bother you that cynical people are using your results to downplay the importance of freshwater conditions? “, I see this in a more nuanced way than you do.

      The “cynical people” you refer to are people whose livelihoods are in some way threatened by various FW initiatives. We let the debate play out in the political arena because this is preferable to using guns or clubs to win the argument.

      I would agree with you about the desirability of being more even-handed, but that just isn’t in the cards with salmon science, it seems. I see abundant evidence of cherry picking on both sides of the debate, so that sort of deliberately cynical behaviour is far more widespread than you seem to feel. My most recent paublished paper comparing coastwide SARs was subject to some pretty bruising comments by the Fish Passage Center and a number of their bald statements were clearly (& deliberately?) false. I am currently awaiting the publication of a review of our paper and the FPC’s claims by the ISAB, but for those interested here is a link to our point by point written rebuttal of the FPC’s charges:

      I don’t think either side has complete truth and justice on their side. And to remind everyone about the main reason I commented on Bob Lackey’s blog post, it wasn’t about some group or other being cynical–it is about what I see as self-censorship in the fisheries profession that restricts the debate and limits what people are willing to admit as possibilities. We live in a political world, which is better than living in a dictatorship, but government agencies, individuals, and independent groups all engage in behaviours that try to inhibit the range of solutions to a subset they see as favourable. My point here is that there are scientific consequences to the self-censorship and one of those consequences is a much slower acceptance of new, contrary, ideas. That is bad news with climate change racing way ahead of our professional ability to generate new approaches to deal with the problems. And that is the perfect recipe for stagnation.

      • Nah, David, some government agencies do limit the discussion, do limit the input, and do limit participation if the points to be presented do not support the agency (or probably NGO or whatever) position. While I know how I would like to see things go, what I am comfortable with is a clearly open and transparent discussion where all the interests get to be part of the discussion and decision. It may be cumbersome.

      • Since someone had to bring up the word cynical, I’m passing this article along that may, or may not, have anything to the discussions going on about defending reality in regards to salmon issues. In the big scheme of things, however, I think it has everything to do with the ever-escalating loss of biological diversity…particularly among aquatic species. The author of this article is Cyprinid Cynicalis – and for most people, I’d have to explain his first name, but I don’t think that’s necessary in this group. I do know that one thing Cyprinid often asks is, “Can you humans agree on anything?” Unfortunately, this discussion thread does not put his mind at ease!

  30. Bob [Lackey],

    With all due respect I found your spineless piece of twenty years ago as off-putting today as then.

    I don’t know just how you define yourself – you’ve had one foot in academe, the other – your principal paycheck foot – in that of an environmental protection agency for most of the years that I’ve known of you

    I’ve looked at the string of reactions to your strutting your ‘woe, all is lost for Pacific salmon’ piece on its 20th anniversary and about the only coherent sense I get from it is everyone’s concern for climate change – a concern that a 17-yr-old has campaigned internationally about

    ‘Meanwhile, back at the ranch, someone’s got to give a damn about Pacific salmon conservation enough to roll us his/her sleeves and deal with the human crapola that is impacting salmon conservation up and down the Pacific coast as we speak

    I got into the conservation of the fish of San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary 64 years ago (do the math), and as much as the environment of the Estuary has been degraded over the years since the spirit and integrity of the ‘responsible agencies’ appears to have degraded even more

    A colleague and I recently published a paper – check it out here – concerning the loss of CA’s Central Valley salmon to the State and federal water diversion pumps at the head of the SF Bay-Delta Estuary that suggests that losses are multiples of what the law allows.

    The editors of the most relevant peer-reviewed publication, San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science wouldn’t let us call out the transgressions of the ‘responsible agencies’ and the water agencies’ high-paid consultants – we had to settle for pussyfooting about ‘revisiting the data’ (see our article’s title)

    I’m not going to drag you into CA water politics here – it’s not for the faint of heart – but I just want to say that there are some of us out here that will keep fighting for the conservation of Pacific salmon, and believing they will be around a lot longer than we, until our last breath – because for some of us Pacific salmon are our totem !

    ‘Best to all

    Bill Kier

  31. I’ve been working on Columbia salmon issues for 30 years as both a legal advocate (working for conservation organizations) and an academic (teaching law students about legal and scientific issues surrounding salmon management and conservation). While I appreciated the paper 20 years ago and am intrigued by its similar perspectives 20 years later, I’m not really sure it really advances the ball overall, either from the perspective of society generally or for scientists.

    I think one could make very similar observations for many ecological and environmental challenges we face, including the biggie — climate change. It is true that human numbers continue to increase, and we have not improved a whole lot in reducing our per capita consumption or our overall impacts on other species and the environment. At the same time, these facts hide lots of complexities in what causes human numbers to go up — or down as among many affluent groups. “Objective facts” also hide most of the causes of many environmental impacts, which also often stem from dumb human policies rather than from our inability to prevent such impacts.

    So what does this mean for scientists? No, scientists should not spin optimistic stories designed to make people feel good. But neither should scientists “objectively” say that everything’s going to hell in a handbasket because we’re unlikely to get our act together (hey, maybe we’ll sink a three before the ecological buzzer!).

    Scientists should accurately describe reality, but they certainly don’t need to “defend” it! Why would a fishery biologist “defend” a future in which the objects of her study — creatures she knows provide benefits to ecosystems and all of their denizens (including humans!) head toward extinction? So in addition to accurately portraying reality, scientists can help society and decision-makers understand the value of salmon and [insert important environmental/biotic resource here], and the ecological and human risks and consequences of various future pathways. Scientists can also learn how to communicate such information in ways other than statistical information in technical journals and conferences, and to whom they should direct such information to ensure that decision-makers at least understand the full consequences of their actions. And scientists could get better at refusing to work for interests that often bend science to protect profits, despite the fact that such jobs often pay really well. Quite a few scientists do such work — the former president filled up the government’s science advisory boards with them, for example.

    In the 21st century, reality sucks in a lot of ways — for salmon and lots of other parts of the biota (including significant parts of human society). We’ve got computers to help us dispassionately keep track of facts. Without losing their objectivity or sounding rosy just to make people feel better, perhaps scientists need to focus on learning to better use their knowledge and skills to help craft a more functional and equitable future for all living things (including Earth).

  32. I find it interesting that some scientists are still offended by Bob’s article, some of it seeming semantical. “Defending reality” means to be honest about the situation, neither “sugar-coating” the situation (Pollyanna-style) nor overdoing the “Sky is falling” thinking that just instills fear (& not real thinking). Like many things, moderation is best. And for me, defending reality includes (a) publicizing that both fresh- & saltwater factors are important for Pac.-salmonid viability (to stave off the cynical naysayers w/ other agendas); and (b) recognizing that we are able to manage freshwater factors more easily than marine ones (at least for now). We’re human & do what we can to make the world a little better. I’m not offended by Bob’s article b/c I know who I am.

  33. David, I’m well aware of the censorship problems in science, including relevant AFS presentations in 2015 & 2019, as well as this published paper:

    Vadas, R.L. Jr. 1994. The anatomy of an ecological controversy: honey bee searching
    behavior. Oikos 69: 158-166 (

    My question to you, in defending reality & in keeping w/ my ’94 paper, is what is your funding source to advocate for dams not being the problem in the Columbia R. basin? I’ve collaborated w/ FPC & find them very credible, in contrast to the Bush Jr. admin. that tried to defund ’em. I do hope that you remain in the world of sci. objectivity, keeping track of which way is up to avoid “drowning” yourself in the tailwaters.

  34. There are a lot of semantic issues in your question to Bob [Vadas]. I don’t believe that the Snake River dams are THE problem, but are A problem. Just as pinnipeds aren’t THE problem and so on. Removing every anadromous out zone dam in the Columbia watershed, besides destroying the non-salmon-based economy of a large swath of the US will also not restore anadromous salmonids unless numerous other steps are taken. That, to me, is where the whole problem of salmon restoration (or possibly most species) is that there is not a silver bullet that will fix everything.

    I have been campaigning for decades that one critical aspect of salmonid recovery is the drastic (like 20x+) increase in spawning escapement. Not only will this increase FW fish productivity, it will also clean the gravel of silt and feed the terrestrial ecosystem. But, we are seeing that huge numbers of pink salmon in the NE Pacific are hammering the ecosystem and decreasing salmon, whales, seabirds, zooplankton. What I wonder abbey is are the massive numbers of pinks outcompeting everybody or is the food base that the pinks feed on reduced because of harvest/climate change? The result is the same, but the cause have different solutions. We have to look at the whole ecosystem, from the base to the top and integrate the information. The days of working in nuclear bomb-proof silos needs to end.

    • Yes Hal, true ecosystem mgmt. is important, which requires us to look at various aspects, including human ecology. E.g., there’s a push now to breach the lower Snake R. dams, in the process protecting other Columbia R. dams, which seems to be a useful compromise. Successful negotiations allow us to balance user needs that include fishes, wildlife, & humans, which goes beyond simple sci. Transparency helps w/ this process, to better provide security for all user needs in “win-win” fashion (real progress). A similar strategy was used to breach some dams in the Penobscot R. basin (ME) for Alt. salmon & other diadromous fishes, in the process beefing up the remaining dams for hydropower production.

      BTW, here’s an interesting webinar (in 2 parts) that addresses objectivity & ethics in presenting sci. results graphically:

      • Bob [Vadas], because I have professional and personal friends who are also scientists/resource managers from around the world I often get hit with questions about why “fish folks” are doing x, y, and z that are destroying our shearwaters (for example). The complexity is that the birds are part of a long-standing culturally important native and immigrant harvest. At the same time, the salmon are part of a culturally and economically important harvest. The two groups are in way different hemispheres but the resources directly interact. I remember when my boss, when asked to ensure sufficient chum salmon escapement to feed wintering Bald Eagles said he would never manage fish for birds.

        • Yah, that’s why everyone needs to be at the table to holistically address resource needs. I hope that WA’s Conservation Initiative gets us closer to that, we’ll see. In the past, I concluded that egos were the main reason for sci. bias in academia (Vadas 1994), politics for agencies, & $ for industry, but all 3 grps. now seem more greenback-based than formerly. If this is transgressed, organizations can go belly-up or have to let people go, another ethical issue. But that’s why my father had the nuke industry sign an academic-freedom agreement for his marine-botany pubs. I say let scientists write their repts. & the policy people filter that info (for policy repts.) as needed to meet organization needs, but don’t make scientists do that filtering (to turn ’em into policy advocates). Like my consultant boss once said (before the company grew & proved this very pt.), “It takes a long to time to build up a good reputation, but very little time to destroy it”. That means less promotions, but that’s OK for me.

  35. Hal [Michael] is probably 1 of the most objective scientists that I know, courageous for pushing carcass MDNs as being important for salmon sustainable, which our agency has been slow to embrace. Pls. note that the UW-Fisheries scientist who advocated for mainstem flows not being limiting for Pac. salmonids in the Columbia-Snake R. system was funded by the mainstem irrigators.

    Having been a consultant for instream-flow & other environmental issues in both the NE USA & NW Canada, I’m well aware of the pressures from both sides, i.e., biz & environmentalist advocates. E.g., here’s an apparent example of TU-Natl. trying to put a dam operator out of biz:

    Vadas, R.L. Jr., and R.L. Vadas, Sr. 2005. The West Branch of the Penobscot River, Maine, is overrated for fishing. Trout 47(4): 11 (full article formerly under the ‘Trout Magazine’ blog and since published during 2008 in The Fishing Line [Trout Unlimited, Olympia Chapter] 202: 6-7) ( publication/331997972).

    As objective scientists, we must skirt these “Scylla vs. Charybdis” hazards, keeping a middle ground & remaining “untouchable”. This can be difficult & reduce future work opps, but that’s important for defending reality. Both Hal & Bob L. have both written relevant articles on this topic; advocacy must be done carefully & transparently.

  36. I agree that advocacy should be done transparently but I disagree with it should be done carefully.

    This wording suggests, and many of the previous comments have inferred, that fishery scientists must stay on the side of the angels when advocating for action based on their scientific findings. Various comments have cast aspersion on “high priced consultants” and other clearly biased analysts and questioned their source of funding. Having been one of those hated hired guns for 50 years of my career (although unfortunately never highly paid), I obvious have a tainted view of the world. However, I maintain that whether a scientist is from an impeccable ivory tower, a brow-beating bureaucracy or an evil greedy capitalist, objective analysis is challenging and can only be achieved through transparency. Note I did not say peer review. The problems with peer review are significant as alluded to in some comments and the process does not guarantee good science. The best measure of good science in my experience occurs in legal proceedings where the bright light of cross-examination demands transparency and sound analysis.

    A key point that Bob Lackey has written extensively about is that good science and advocacy are oil and water; no matter how transparent one tries to be. There is good reason why a lawyer cannot be both counsel and a witness in the same legal case. An effective witness is anything but an advocate.

    The fact that different scientists can arrive at different interpretations based on the same data is a reality of science. This need not be sure evidence of bias or poor analysis. All interpretations should be considered and the most compelling interpretation depends on the circumstances and is generally in resource management NOT a scientific question.

    The fact that these decisions do not always accord with the personal views of an individual scientist is reality. Further, reality is not absolute but is fuzzy due to all sorts of uncertainty. The best risk strategy given this fuzziness is again not a scientific decision. These decisions can be informed, and should be informed, by science but the decision itself is not one to be decided by scientists.

    Scientific debate about the best interpretation of a situation based on data, theory, personal experience and insights is what moves science forward. Claiming that some of those in the debate have gone over to the dark side is unhealthy and unproductive. That is a form of advocacy that diminishes the status of science and scientists.

    • We all have to be ethically careful to avoid the dark sides presented by both extremes that want biostitute(s) to advocate their positions; that’s defending reality. No, peer review isn’t perfect (Vadas 1994), but w/o it, scientists would just be another subjective, competing interest akin to politics or religion. Reality is also a moving target b/c new sci. findings may change our views if we stay objective. In any case, I agree w/ Hal & Bob L. that uncareful advocacy can taint a scientist & cause (s)he to be ignored or even censored (as happened to 2 antivax scientists). Yes, this may be “dirty laundry”, but I consider it to be reality that needs discussing.

      BTW, here’s our coming book chapter that addresses how to do advocacy carefully, but effectively, as a scientist:

      Hughes, R.M., and seven coauthors. 2020. Why advocate – and how? Pages xx-xx in D. DellaSalla, ed. Conservation Science and Advocacy for a Planet in Crisis: 2020 Hindsight and Beyond. Elsevier. New York.

  37. Interesting blog covering a wide range of topics. At the time of Bob Lackey’s original article I was immersed in the development of Canada’s Wild (Pacific) Salmon Policy that was finally released in 2005. This was my first experience working at the intersection of science and policy. I had never heard of terms like “normative science”; conversations with Bob and his various publications had a significant effect on my thinking. Our WSP was largely based on the maintenance of habitat and ecosystem integrity, which we felt would safeguard genetic diversity, thereby allowing wild salmon populations better chances to survive the widely variable conditions expected with climate change.

    At the time, Bob’s predictions for wild salmon in and south of southern BC seemed reasonable to me. There was a clear relationship between numbers of people and freshwater habitat and our numbers were bound to increase. Warming of both fresh and marine waters was only going to exacerbate challenges for cold water species like Pacific salmon.

    At about this time I switched my research focus from freshwater to marine. The realization that Pacific salmon numbers in the North Pacific were near all time high levels somewhat compensated for the gloomy conditions in the south east portion of their range (the so called Pacific Northwest).

    I have always felt that it makes little sense to argue about the relative importance of the freshwater version marine environment for salmon. They are both essential. We know that the survival of some species (e.g. coho, chinook, some sockeye) in the ocean has declined in recent decades but what was it before then?

    It is complicated! We have multiple taxonomic species of Pacific salmon and within each species there are multiple life history variants with specific ecological needs. Put that against an increasingly variable ecosystem and it seems obvious that limiting factors will vary among species, populations and over time.

    Some of you will be familiar with the 2018 paper by Greg Ruggerone and I where we reconstructed the abundance of wild and hatchery sockeye, pink, and chum salmon from 1925-2015 (DOI: 10.1002/mcf2.10023). We recently extended our time series to include 2020 although the last 5 years are less certain than the previous 85 years.

    What frightens me most about Pacific salmon is what happened to our salmon in 2020. This past year, salmon returns were much lower than any earlier year on record, not only in the “Pacific Northwest” but also further north and in Asia. Bristol Bay sockeye and Kamchatka chum were notable exceptions. What caused this widespread collapse? We have ideas but no one knows for sure.

  38. FYI for 2 short videos re: past & future dam-breaching opps:

    Elwha River, Rising from the Ashes

    Free the Snake: Restoring America’s Greatest Salmon River

    Further FYI:

    Notably, the Elwha River may now have the largest wild-steelhead run in Puget Sound, whereas the Snake River formerly provided almost half the salmon escapement of the Columbia River basin. That’s the reality. I doubt that full recovery is possible given climate change & other human impacts, but it’s a step in the right direction.

  39. I did take the time to read 2 letters at, 1 more objectively written than the other. Having worked in the Fraser R. basin over 2 decades ago, it was notable that salmon runs were doing better for a longer period than for the more-dammed Columbia R. basin. And although this differential is now disappearing, there are other problems in the Fraser R. basin that weren’t mentioned, notably the greater (a) abundance of open-net pens for Atlantic salmon in BC & (b) problems w/ railway-caused landslides in the Fraser R. (most notably Hell’s Gate). The situation is a more complex than just dams, & frankly, it’s a comparison between 2 rivers that don’t make a great ‘paired-watershed’ comparison. But yes, we’ve got heating problems in both rivers from climate change, although breaching of the lower Snake R. dams may potentially mitigate that in the USA. Better riparian restoration in the headwaters of both rivers might help, too. My takeaway msg. on David’s writings is that salmon recovery will likely not be as “glowing” as some scientists have predicted, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t see ANY benefits. There are multiple limiting factors for Pac. salmonids, which is why the 4-H concept was developed.

    I iterate my call for transparency of funding sources that I expressed in my ’94 paper, something that many sci. journals have now implemented. That allows us to better evaluate who a given scientist (or politician, for that matter) is representing. Representing other interests beyond sci. isn’t necessarily damning, but it helps provide context for the negotiation process.

    Yes, let’s all do something about climate change! On a personal level (’til the politicians come around), this has meant my buying a green-built house that now has solar panels, convincing a friend to do the latter on their own home, & living along a bus rte. that also allows easy cycling to work (when the weather isn’t too awful). When I formerly lived closer to work, I would sometimes walk or (if snowing a lot) X-C ski to the office (the latter mostly on the bike trail). I’ve also cut back greatly on petroleum (including plastic) products, & reuse what plastic bags that I do have many times over. I certainly hope that others do something similar, to have a great net benefit for salmon, etc.

  40. All on board that human population growth both on a global basis and here in the U.S., our backyard, is the #1 environmental issue. Your story of northwest salmon research, determining that human population growth is a vital issue, and reflecting back 20 years later would make a great 6 minute video for YouTube. Done in an informative, catchy manner. Know that’s a lot to cram into 6 minutes. Viewers don’t have a longer attention span. Video since not enough people read your article online.

  41. No mention of the devastating effects on wild salmon by the open net pen salmon farming industry? I wonder how many wild chinook runs critical to SRKW are at very low levels, such as Spring run, would possibly recover with the removal of those disease and parasite vectors.


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