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Time to Decide Why We Want to Save the Salmon

by Richard Shepard
Portland Business Journal, May 26, 2003

Since the first five "stocks" of Snake River salmon were listed under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1991, the salmon recovery industry has replaced the natural resource and high-tech industries as the dominant economic force in the Pacific Northwest, if not the entire West Coast of the United States.

This economic powerhouse is going to consume at least $136 million from the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) alone this year. But there is no accounting to demonstrate that the money spent has produced even one more salmon than if nothing had been done.

Estimates of the total amount of money spent on this journey start at $10 billion and go up from there. Unfortunately, this shift in the economic base of Oregon, Washington and other states within the Columbia River basin has proven very costly to everyone not employed in the salmon protection industry.

If this industry were in the private sector, it would be a corporate governance/mismanagement example that would make Enron, WorldCom, Tyco and the rest pale in comparison.

These are strong words. Yet I believe that they are either just the right words or only slightly overstated.

However, finding fault and complaining is not productive unless there are alternatives offered. Knowing the salmon recovery journey's beginning requires solid science. Defining the destination is a job for everyone in our society for it is a destination based on values, not science. Once our current position is known and the destination is established, we will be able to see several paths to get us from here to there. Which path is chosen depends on how much we are willing to pay and how well we can measure progress along the way.

The reason that we will never save the salmon (or "recover the populations" in agency-speak) is that we don't know what that means. Every vested interest in the salmon recovery industry knows what "save the salmon" means. However, the meanings are mutually incompatible, so when they speak with a single voice they are saying different things.

The lack of a destination was made clear to me more than a decade ago. In 1991 I attended a meeting of the Sierra Club in Portland. There was some discussion of the need to save the high desert of Central and Eastern Oregon from the evils of cattle and people, but the subject soon turned to the "crisis" of the newly listed salmon stocks. There was passionate debate on what role the Sierra Club should play and how important it was for immediate, strong action.

I listened to the discussion for a while until my urge to ask a question overcame my intention of sitting silently during the meeting.

"Why," I asked the group, looking at each one of them, "do you want to save the salmon? I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't do so, but I'm very curious why each of you believes the salmon should be saved."

Dead silence. A dozen or so blank stares directed at me. I waited, looking each of them in the eye with what I intended to be an encouraging expression. Finally, one of them suggested that I ought to leave the meeting. The rest nodded their agreement, so I got up and left.

My impression was that not one of the members had ever thought about why salmon was important to him and they were made very uncomfortable when I broke into their excitement by making them aware that they did not know why they were so fervent.

Since then, different interest groups have decided what salmon recovery means to them. One position is that salmon are part of the tradition, culture and allure of the Pacific Northwest. To this group, naturally reproducing populations (called "wild" or "native" populations by different agencies) must be abundant throughout the Columbia River basin. Hatcheries are not "natural" --the mildest of the charges leveled against them. Neither are pen-raised fish, in the piscine equivalent of beef cattle in a feedlot.

Other stakeholders want fish to catch (for sport or commercially) and do not care whether the fish were born and raised in the concrete jungles of a hatchery or in the gravels of a tributary stream.

Another stakeholder group has a vested financial (and career) interest in hatcheries. They promote the controlled production of fish because greater numbers can be turned out for the journey to the ocean and note that as human development takes increasing control of the drainage basin hatcheries are a proven method of supplying the sport and food demands for salmon.

These three concepts produce conflicting demands on where money is spent and what results should be gained. We cannot completely fulfill these incompatible expectations.

Until we, as a society, reach consensus on what we mean by "save the salmon," we are wasting money and effort moving randomly and ineffectively.

Related Pages:
Anadromous Fish Business for Fish, 11/7/96

Richard Shepard of Troutdale, who has his doctorate in river ecology and fluvial geomorphology from Idaho State University, has 30 years experience with river systems.
Time to Decide Why We Want to Save the Salmon
Portland Business Journal, May 26, 2003

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