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article imageOp-Ed: Salmon recovery – ecology, awareness, and accountability Special

By Ernest Dempsey     Oct 11, 2014 in Environment
Columbia City - Wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest has been on the decline due to continued destruction of their natural habitat. Are salmon hatcheries a solution or part of the problem of salmon decline? Biologist and researcher Jim Lichatowich talks about the issue.
Salmon is a key ecological member of the Pacific Northwest. In Native American culture, salmon was more than a source of food; it was part of the living environment, a member of the ecological house that was stranger to the hands of industrial way of “harvesting”. However, as happens with commoditization of other life forms, corporate use of salmon deprived this ecological nurturer of its natural ecological status and brought it under the control of hatcheries and human management. The result was a notable decline in wild salmon population, a problem that continues to exists and even getting worse. Salmon, People, and Place is a book that informs readers about the real ecological issues involved in salmon management and recovery of wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest. Having reviewed the book, I had the pleasure of having email correspondence with the author – a biologist and scientific adviser with years of experience in the field of salmon management. The following Q&A with Jim Lichatowich builds on some of the important issues discussed in his book.
Ernest: Jim, the first thing I would like to ask here is your own realization of the salmon problem. Was it a professional or personal quest?
Jim Lichatowich: I am a fishery biologist whose primary interest is the Pacific salmon and steelhead. So you could say I have had an interest in the status of salmon since graduating from OSU (1970) with a degree in fisheries science. That interest was heightened in 1976 when the abundance of coho salmon declined dramatically. I was a research biologist at the Oregon Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at the time. A few other other researchers and I were asked to determine the cause in the dramatic drop in the number of coho. That was the beginning of my quest, and it was at that time entirely professional. My interest in the state of the salmon was heightened in 1990 when Willa Nehlsen and Jack Williams asked me to join them in tracking the status of salmon and steelhead throughout the Pacific Northwest. The results of that project were published in 1991 with the title Pacific Salmon at the Crossroads: Stocks at risk from California, Oregon, Idaho, and Washington. We received a lot of support and information from biologists throughout the region, but what really surprised me was the amount of opposition to the paper’s publication. Several biologists didn’t see a problem and some just didn’t want the information made public. The crossroads paper and especially the resistance to it was a turning point in my career. To try to understand the resistance to the publication of the crossroads paper, I began studying the history of salmon management, digging into the management’s underlying assumptions about nature. That led to my first book Salmon with out Rivers: A history of the Pacific salmon crisis. Publication of the book was another milestone in my career. At that point, my quest on behalf of the salmon became both very personal as well as professional. I think I showed both the professional and personal side of my interest in salmon in my second book Salmon People and place: A biologist’s search for salmon recovery.
Ernest: What is the significance of wild salmon beyond human consumption?
Jim Lichatowich: Wild salmon have cultural and biological significance. Historically, salmon had a great cultural importance. The large runs of wild salmon were of such great ecological, economic, and religious importance that they were the place-defining event for the Pacific Northwest. The annual return of the salmon is embedded deep into the culture of the region.
From an ecological perspective, the runs of wild salmon were in effect a mass movement of nutrients from the ocean to the headwaters of rivers throughout the region. Some animals fed directly on the salmon carcasses. The nutrients from decomposing bodies of salmon entered aquatic and terrestrial food webs, which nourished the whole ecosystem.
Wild salmon populations are the repository for what is left of the genetic and life history diversity and it is that diversity that will be needed if the salmon are to survive the coming climate change. Hatcheries have been reducing the salmon’s biodiversity making them less able to adapt to the changes and therefore making them more vulnerable to climate change.
Ernest: You wrote that important ecological relationships are not directly visible. What are the means by which we can make them visible to the stakeholders, for example to salmon management, in case of salmon?
Jim Lichatowich: Some ecological relationships are visible, but they require that we spend a lot of time around salmon rivers and really pay attention to what is going on in and around the river. One that comes to mind is the relationship between salmon and the 100 plus animals that feed on salmon carcasses. It can be seen directly but requires quality time spent near rivers paying attention to what is going on. Other relationships are observed indirectly, for example, the relationship between salmon and the trees growing on a river’s bank. You cannot see the tree taking up the nutrients released from the salmon’s decomposing body, but there are chemical analyses that allow you to detect those nutrients in the tree and from that information infer the tree’s relationship to the salmon. The best way to start understanding the salmon’s relationships to their environment is to get outdoors and spend time near streams and simply pay attention.
Ernest: Does trying to make these relationships visible come with a cost if the management’s corporate interest is threatened by them? I am thinking about the opposition you faced that you talk about in the book.
Jim Lichatowich: It does. Salmon management is based on a simple command-and-control model that pays little attention to the ecological relationships that sustain wild salmon. That simple model is the status quo, the management agency’s comfort zone. Anything that challenges that comfort zone will be resisted.
It’s important to keep in mind that salmon managers have two parts to their mission and those two parts can and do conflict. First, the managers must supply fish (commodities) to sport and commercial fisheries and secondly they must protect the salmon through an effective conservation program. In my opinion the commodity side of their mission has received the lion’s share of attention to the neglect of their conservation responsibilities. Hatcheries, the corner stone of command and control management, supply fish (commodities) to the sport and commercial fisheries satisfying one part of the mission. Producing commodities through hatchery operations is easier than paying attention to the more complicated ecological relationships that make up salmon sustaining ecosystems.
Ernest: So we see that salmon is treated as a commodity by the management and not as an important ecological member. Would you tell a bit about “real accountability” as you touch on it in Salmon, People, and Place?
Jim Lichatowich: We cannot hold today’s salmon managers accountable for decisions that others made years or decades before. However, we can hold them accountable for understanding the consequences of those decisions and for making sure they don’t repeat past mistakes. A salmon recovery plan should not be approved for funding unless the authors of the plan demonstrate that they understand what has been done in the past to manage/recover salmon in the target river or similar rivers; that the authors demonstrate that they understand why the past efforts were either successful or why they failed and; that the author’s plan will effectively avoid past mistakes and failures. I have yet to see a recovery plan that provides this kind of information. Without this form of accountability, we run the risk of failing to learn from mistakes and keep repeating them.
Ernest: In the chapter where you talk about the claims of “record runs”, it becomes apparent that lying and distortion of facts is part of the industrial game that uses wildlife as commodity, as in salmon case. Do you believe media departments of industries and mainstream media in general are thorough enough to show such tactics?
Jim Lichatowich: The frequent claim of a record run of salmon into the Columbia River is the result of something called a shifting baseline. Shifting baselines are an important problem in fisheries. They occur, in part, when each generation of fishery biologists accepts the state of the salmon at the time they enter the profession as the baseline, the natural state of the resource. When big runs of salmon periodically occur, they are compared not to the historical baseline, the size of the salmon runs when Euro-Americans first arrived in the Pacific Northwest, but to the more recent, shifted baseline. Salmon managers use shifting baselines to hide the true magnitude of what we have lost. Shifting baselines let the managers give the public good news of “record runs” even though those “record runs” are still only a fraction of the salmon’s real, historical abundance. Unfortunately, many of those who report on salmon issues for the media have such limited knowledge that they cannot put claims of record runs into proper perspective.
Ernest: An important concept that we learn from your book is that of “conceptual foundation”. As a biologist, have you seen the problem of wrong conceptual foundation in wildlife conservation/management other than salmon?
Jim Lichatowich: From my reading, it appears at least some authors believe that forest management, economics, industrial agriculture, those who deny the reality of climate change are guided by flawed conceptual foundations. Even Allen Greenspan essentially admitted, following the 2008 meltdown of the economy, that he had been basing his recommendation regarding the regulation of the financial services industry on a flawed conceptual foundation.
Ernest: How helpful have the lawmakers been in protecting salmon habitat in the Pacific Northwest?
Jim Lichatowich: A big failing of lawmakers has been the lack of real oversight. It has been 20 plus years since the first listings of salmon under the federal Endangered Species Act. A river of money has flowed into the Pacific Northwest to fund recovery programs. And yet no lawmakers, governors, senators, congressmen, and so on, with the responsibility for oversight have asked this simple question: how are we doing? No one has asked that simple question and demanded an answer backed up with supporting data. Of course, when assessing the progress of recovery programs, those with oversight responsibility need to be careful that claims of success are not compromised by shifting baselines.
Ernest: In closing, I’d like you to tell us a bit about your other book and any current projects?
Jim Lichatowich: My first book, Salmon without Rivers, is a history, beginning with the salmon’s evolutionary history and continuing with the history of the human salmon relationship. In it, I describe how we got to the present state of the salmon. I haven’t settled on a new book project yet, but I hope to within the next six months. In the meantime I spend a lot of time carving birds and fish. I have found that leaning to carve a bird or fish species opens up a whole new area of learning and enhanced my education as a biologist.
Ernest: Thank you Jim for sharing your views and experience with our readers!
To learn more about Jim Lichatowich and his work, visit
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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