the film
Commentaries and editorials

The Great Leap Forward

by Robert Stokes
Wheat Life, June 2006

'Return to the River' warrants careful reading

Columbia River salmon have been conserved and managed as a commercial and recreational resource for over a century. One measure of the long-term success of that effort was the return in 2001 of nearly 2-million adult salmon, the best year since counting began in 1938 with completion of Bonneville Dam.

If that doesn't sound much like a salmon crisis, it's because there isn't one. Previous columns traced the last decade and a half of such rhetoric to ideologically biased (pro-environmentalist, pro-salmon, anti-dam) fisheries science associated with implementing the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Below we explore how those same biases prevail in discussions of using technology to solve those salmon conservation problems that really exist.

That we have any salmon problem at all traces, not to past failures, but to expanded goals. From the 1930s to the 1970s, success in Columbia River salmon conservation meant providing harvest opportunities for commercial and recreational fishermen, a task accomplished primarily by building hatcheries. The Northwest Power Planning Act of 1980 (NWPPA) set in motion administrative processes that also established biodiversity and fidelity to pre-European settlement population genetics as management goals.

The Northwest Power and Conservation Council (NWPCC) is a four-state (Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana) regional body charged with implementing the NWPPA. Its most significant task is coordinating expenditure of several hundred million (annual) dollars of Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) rate payer money that pays for most Columbia River salmon programs.

In sharp contrast to Endangered Species Act (ESA) implementing agencies (NOAA Fisheries for Columbia River salmon), NWPCC takes account of costs, economic impacts and the need to balance requirements of salmon and dams. In pursuit of those congressionally mandated conservation and economic goals, NWPCC commissioned a group of independent scientists to review its program and propose a framework for future planning. "Return to the River" (RTR) is the product of that work. First published in 1996 as a NWPCC document, RTR was revised and republished by its authors in 2005 as an independent book. (See references below.)

We outsiders would benefit from a careful reading of RTR or at least reference access to that (very thick) document. All the facts about Columbia River salmon are there.

RTR also includes a useful paradigm or framework for thinking about salmon conservation. Metapopulation is the key concept of that framework. A metapopulation is a group of closely related but distinct salmon populations. The meta-population of Columbia River chinook salmon (including most salmon returning to the Columbia River) is the primary focus of the RTR authors and is used here to illustrate the concept. RTR starts basic, even for this city kid. Many of its assertions will be obvious to readers of Wheat Life, some laughably so. There is more to building a healthy cattle herd than impregnating a lot cows. So also, increasing adult salmon returns involves more than expanding hatchery output. Either task requires understanding the animal's whole life cycle. Only such understanding will produce proper insights concerning deliberate human action to support beneficial outcomes or prevent harm, whether benefit and harm originate from natural processes or human actions, and whether the latter are intentional or unintentional.

It is not necessary that Columbia River salmon spawn above Bonneville Dam or, if they do, spend their adult lives in the Pacific Ocean. Early harvest supplementation programs located hatcheries in the lower Columbia to avoid dam and reservoir mortality. More recently, the few remaining Snake River sockeye salmon have been held to adulthood near their original Snake River Basin spawning grounds in a captive breeding (hatchery) program.

That said, the situation envisioned in all current management programs is for salmon to spawn upstream of one or more of the Columbia and Snake rivers' 15 dams, then journey to the Pacific Ocean, eventually reversing that passage to spawn and die in or near their natal stream (or hatchery).

It is impossible to predict, much less control, environmental conditions facing salmon during those journeys, particularly in the ocean. As a substitute for such understanding, RTR recommends preserving, to the greatest possible extent, the internal diversity of the Columbia River chinook salmon metapopulation. This diversity was nature's solution to the problem of survival in an uncertain environment. Until man can confidently do better, he should respect that result. No argument on that point.

RTR's metapopulation paradigm also recognizes the self-healing character of natural processes. The Columbia River chinook salmon metapopulation has survived for thousands of years. It survived because loss of any part (sub-population) could be restored from the remainder. Adversities (in the ocean, estuary, river or spawning grounds) that depleted one sub-population opened opportunities for others. The salmon's homing instinct is strong but not absolute. Adults often stray from natal streams or hatcheries, particularly when tempted by attractive spawning grounds devoid of competitors. By this process spawning areas and other habitat niches were continually reseeded.

Dams interrupted that self-healing process. For mainstem spawners (fall chinook) replacing flowing water with slack reservoirs destroyed spawning habitat. For tributary spawners (spring chinook) dams and reservoirs blocked straying and recolonialization. Now every natural or man caused misfortune can permanently destroy a sub-population. Bad luck has effect, good luck does not. By those rules, any gambler knows all the chips will eventually be gone. No argument here either.

Then comes the green leap. According to the RTR authors, the only alternative to this dismal spiral is reversing the process of river development. Hence the title "Return to the River." Were they sleeping during high school biology? A species adapts to the environment, not the environment to the species. To be precise, evolution is a mutual process. A species adapts to its environment, and the environment adapts to it. Similarly, we humans adapt to society and society adapts to us. With varying degrees of pain most of us eventually learn it is we (not society) who do most of the adapting.

Nature finds "a" solution through the continuous natural experiment we call evolution. That is neither the "only" solution, nor necessarily the "best" solution, from the standpoint of a particular species; any more than the social conditions to which we adapt as individuals would be considered the "only" or "best" conditions, were the powers-that-be inclined to consult our preferences.

Farming and animal husbandry consist, in large part, of improving on the evolutionary hand nature deals plants and animals. Likewise, the government and private programs that restored North America's harvested fish and game to abundance. Likewise, Columbia River salmon conservation programs, from their origin in the late 19th century to the present.

The most telling evidence that the RTR authors adopted an ideological (rather than scientific) position against technology is found in their 2005 book. The decade between publication of the original NWPCC report and that book saw dramatic improvements in the application of technology to Columbia River salmon conservation, notably refinement of the barging and supplementation hatchery programs.

What should have been of particular interest to the RTR authors were the results of empirical testing of the barging program. In numerous tested cases, barging provided all (or a significant fraction) of the survival rate (river plus ocean) required to sustain tested populations. Tests of fall chinook survival are ongoing with no a-priori reason to expect different results.

Declaring the barging program a success (singly or in combination with other technologies like supplementation hatcheries) would refute RTR's central thesis, that only a restored river can save the salmon. Not so. The river can remain devoted to hydro production and other economic uses. With as much confidence as one ever has in natural resource management, we now know the salmon can go around, with a little help from their human friends.

Nobody likes giving up or being proven wrong. So it is not surprising these accomplishments received only grudging ac- knowledgment in the 2005 book version of RTR. Accompanying those (obviously painful) concessions to technological progress were frequent recitations of now decades-old environmentalist shibboleths about the futility of "technological fixes," referring to measures not involving substantial disruption or dismantling of the hydro system.

Such intellectual sins do not absolve skeptics of the salmon crisis from their responsibility to ground criticism in whatever objective science does exist. For now that means reading the enemy's books. Return to the River is among the best of them. That's praise enough.

"Return to the River"
1996 Northwest Power and Conservation Council Report

2005 Book "Return to the River: Restoring Salmon Back to the Columbia River," Richard N. Williams, ed. Academic Press. Available online at

From Salmon Passage Notes, Snake and Columbia River Fish Programs, September 1995; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, North Pacific Division

Related Pages:
Snake Fall Chinook Studies Get More Complicated by Bill Rudolph, NW Fishletter, 12/20/6

Robert Stokes is a retired natural-resource economist who lives in Spokane. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Washington, where he taught in the Institute for Marine Studies from 1974 to 1994.
The Great Leap Forward
Wheat Life, June 2006

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation