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Advocates float radical ideas to save salmon
By Winston Ross
The Register-Guard
Published: Thursday, January 26, 2006

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The Register-Guard photo

Thomas Boyd The Register-Guard
Human population growth is among several threats to wild salmon in the Northwest


PORTLAND - Give up on streams that no longer can sustain wild salmon. Throw open the fish hatchery gates. Create a Wild Salmon National Park. Build new waterways instead of tearing down dams.

These are just a few of the conflicting, provocative and radical suggestions from a group of 33 scientists, salmon policy analysts and advocates who have been studying the future of wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest since 2002.

The volunteer participants of a project called Salmon 2100 unveiled two dozen recommendations Wednesday that they said offer groundbreaking but pragmatic ideas for keeping salmon at sustainable levels through the year 2100. The fish have been reduced to one-tenth of historic levels, despite recent gains.

The ideas are bold because the threats to wild salmon are so profound that none of the current efforts will sustain the fish for another century, the group concluded.

Four key factors will reduce salmon to a mere remnant of their historic numbers, if not drive the species toward extinction, the group said. Those threats are: 

A likely quadrupling of population in the Northwest, to an estimated 65 million by 2100.

Increased scarcity and competition for water.

A system of commerce that favors profits over fish protection.

Individual lifestyle choices that ignore impacts to species such as salmon.

"We can't predict how these things are going to play out," said Bob Lackey, a senior fisheries biologist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and co-leader of the project. "But they're not likely to change in ways that will be favorable to salmon. Wild salmon, by the end of the century, will be reduced to remnant runs in the lower 48 states. There will be runs along the coast, in my view, but practically speaking, in most places, they'll be gone."

That's why Salmon 2100's members took a novel approach: accept that current efforts won't overcome salmon's looming obstacles. Then find a way to sustain the species anyway.

Some of the project's "policy prescriptions," to be published in a book later this year, actually conflict with each other, which is fine, Lackey said. The idea isn't to look for consensus on how to save wild salmon, but to propose a number of politically and socially palatable ideas that actually could work.

Among the proposals:

Create sanctuaries, even a Wild Salmon National Park, in areas that have the best likelihood of keeping wild salmon in good shape. Abandon other runs that won't realistically survive the century. Some argue for shifting effort to high-elevation areas that will suffer fewer impacts from climate change. Others advocate for refuges on the coast.

"I'm not saying give up on the watershed," said Jim Martin, former salmon adviser to Gov. John Kitzhaber and chief of fisheries with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. "I'm saying don't invest in places in direct trajectory of the growth juggernaut, and are going to get nailed by a changing climate. Invest in the areas where we still have some snowpack. ... We're going to lose salmon in these low-elevation streams; they won't be able to withstand the water temp- eratures."

Martin also suggested offering incentives to local governments to control growth.

Allow hatchery fish, traditionally excluded from interbreeding with wild stocks, to be released into the general population. Conservationists have said such a move would introduce disease into the wild salmon population and weaken the gene pool. But it certainly would bolster salmon runs, proponents say.

Build new streams. "You can build streams on old floodplains, old farmland, behind railroad dikes, highway dikes," said Ernest Brannon, distinguished research professor of the Center for Salmonid and Freshwater Species at the University of Idaho. Brannon estimated such work could be done for a cost of $50,000 per mile.

Convince landowners that protecting salmon can benefit them economically, and the general public to reduce its footprint on the landscape. The choices people make about where to live, what to eat and what to buy affect the environment salmon depend on for survival, some researchers said.

"The way to alter lifestyles is to change our ethical relationship with the land," said Jack Williams, chief scientist with Trout Unlimited and an adjunct professor at Southern Oregon University. "Live in a place that reduces our need to drive; think twice about purchasing a second vehicle; buy a low-emissions, low-polluting model; reduce travel; walk; eat less meat; buy organic foods from local growers; when you move, move to a smaller house or apartment; use energy-efficient appliances."

How likely such ideas are to come to fruition remains unclear.

At the last minute, the chairman of the Bush administration's Council on Environmental Policy, James Connaughton, asked to be added to Wednesday's agenda, to respond to the project's ideas. He said his attitude about the fate of wild salmon was more "Pollyanna" than doom and gloom. (Connaughton full speech, PDF file)

"We have to reflect that we are making progress, albeit incrementally," Connaughton said. "All the runs have increased. It's important to know that runs can increase."

Connaughton also brought two new policy initiatives from the administration - a review of fishing practices and U.S. hatcheries, which could lead to tighter fishing restrictions and fewer hatcheries down the road.

But neither approach reflects the Salmon 2100 project's key premise - that minor tweaks to current approaches won't sustain salmon long-term, Lackey said after Connaughton's speech.

Still, the optimism level among the conference's attendees was high on Wednesday.

Keynote speaker William Ruckelshaus, who served as EPA chief under Presidents Nixon and Reagan, encouraged participants to believe that they can make a difference.

"Salmon recovery is right in the middle of an American paradox," said Ruckelshaus, speaking of the clash between values of people who want to protect fish and behaviors that harm them.

"You've been told to help salmon recovery by Congress and the executive branch," he said. "When you're faced with seemingly insurmountable or intractable problems, you can either stew about them, convince yourselves that they can't be solved, or you can break them down into practical and solvable problems."




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