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Pacific Northwest Salmon: Forecasting Their Status in 2100

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Throughout the Pacific Northwest (northern California, Oregon, Idaho, Washington, and the Columbia Basin portion of British Columbia), many wild salmon stocks (a group of interbreeding individuals that is roughly equivalent to a "population") have declined and some have disappeared. Substantial efforts have been made to restore some runs of wild salmon, but few have shown much success. Society's failure to restore wild salmon is a policy conundrum characterized by: (1) claims by a strong majority to be supportive of restoring wild salmon runs; (2) competing societal priorities which are at least partially mutually exclusive; (3) the region's rapidly growing human population and its pressure on all natural resources (including salmon and their habitats); (4) entrenched policy stances in the salmon restoration debate, usually supported by established bureaucracies; (5) society's expectation that experts should be able to solve the salmon problem by using a technological scheme and without massive cultural or economic sacrifices (e.g., life style changes); (6) use of experts and scientific "facts" by political proponents to bolster their policy positions; (7) inability of salmon scientists to avoid being placed in particular policy or political camps; and (8) confusion in discussing policy options caused by couching policy preferences in scientific terms or imperatives rather than value-based criteria. Even with definitive scientific knowledge, which will never be complete or certain, restoring most wild salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest to historic levels will be arduous and will entail substantial economic costs and social disruption required. Ultimate success cannot be assured. Given the appreciable costs and social dislocation, coupled with the dubious probability of success, candid public dialog is warranted to decide whether restoration of wild salmon is an appropriate, much less feasible, public policy objective. Provided with a genuine assessment of the necessary economic costs and social implications required for restoration, it is questionable whether a majority of the public would opt for the pervasive measures that appear necessary for restoring many runs of wild salmon. Through the 21st century, I conclude that there will continue to be appreciable annual variation in the size of salmon runs, accompanied by the decadal trends in run size caused by periodic changes in climatic and oceanic conditions, but many, perhaps most, stocks of wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest likely will remain at their current low levels or continue to decline in spite of heroic, expensive, and socially turbulent attempts at restoration.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory, Office of Research and Development, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Corvallis, Oregon 97333

Publication date: January 1, 2003

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