On the Reality of Wild Salmon Recovery: Accepting Limits to Growth, by Don Orth
The role of a fisheries scientist in advancing policy and science of recovery of Pacific Salmon is a valiant, perhaps quixotic struggle. While most believe salmon are important indicators of environmental health and believe it is important to restore wild salmon runs for future generations, surprisingly little progress is evident. The historic expansion of human activity in the Pacific Northwest has driven a loss of phenotypic and genetic diversity in Pacific salmon. Almost 50 years since publication of “The Limits to Growth” (Meadows et al. 1972), we are still shouting “there are limits to growth” and not getting through in a way that leads to substantive change. By the year 2100, there will be 11.2 billion humans on our planet, all demanding food, jobs, energy, and space. The relative increase in human populations will be even higher in the Pacific Northwest, making restoration of wild salmon runs difficult, if not impossible. My opinion piece deals with avoiding pessimism while proposing a realistic future for wild salmon.
In 2001, Robert Lackey penned an essay “Defending Reality” in Fisheries, in which he concluded that “The near-certain growth in the human population in the Pacific Northwest through this century, coupled with little indication that most people will accept the enormous lifestyle changes necessary to perpetuate, much less restore, wild salmon, means that restoring “fishable” runs of wild salmon in California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Idaho is a policy objective that is not likely to be achieved.“ Similarly, Healey (2009) when examining the status of Pacific Salmon in British Columbia, Canada, concluded that if salmon and their fisheries are to become viable again, radically new management policies are needed.
The reaction to the essay reminded my of Cassandra's Dilemma. Cassandra was a beauty in Greek mythology. When Apollo fell in love with her, he granted her the ability to know the future in his attempt to show his devotion. But when she refused his love, he then cursed her by making it so that no one would ever believe her predictions. Like many modern environmentalists, Cassandra had perfect knowledge of the future and yet nobody would ever believe her – a frustrating curse in the extreme. When asked recently “has wild salmon policy and scientific landscape changed over the past twenty years? “ Lackey (2021) replied “ To answer bluntly . . . nothing substantive has changed from what I described in 2001.” It’s tough being an optimist when reality sucks!
I am certain that many, like me, have experienced similar frustrations when simple, hard-to-accept reality was ignored. Perhaps you shed Cassandra's tears. Perhaps you laughed and displayed eternal optimism. In the extreme, we may respond to difficult futures with a cheerful, often falsely positive, façade, which is referred to as toxic positivity by psychologists. Here the optimist is either in denial or just full of happy horsesh*t. Lackey (2001) maintained that Pacific Salmon management involved a conspiracy of optimism. Optimism may be a coping mechanism because the opposite, pessimism, is bad for your health. These difficult moments of self-doubt challenge each of us as professionals and require frequent self-talk or even group therapy to maintain a clear grip on an often, sad reality. While not a qualified therapist, I find that I do a lot of it for students and colleagues. I refer you to a Therapist’s Guide to Positive Psychological Interventions (adapted from Seligman 2002). To be effective at our work we must protect ourselvesfrom pessimism and its effects on anxiety and depression. Optimism increases our ability to value and plan for the future, and our capacity to recall the past and learn from it. We must learn how to be optimistic in a pessimist's world (AtKisson 2010).
While on a sabbatical leave in academic year 1995-1996, I worked on analyses of reservoir release requirements for fish at the New Don Pedro Project (FERC Project No. 2299-024), just one of many FERC licensed hydro projects in the San Joaquin drainage of California. After comparing the possible release alternatives, the outlook for Pacific Salmon and Steelhead runs looked bleak under current levels of hydro development, hatchery stocking, and degraded riparian wetlands. The reality of no hope for the future restoration of wild salmon did not register in the final environmental impact statement. Looking back 25 years, one sees that the Tuolumne fall-run Chinook Salmon runs are still at historic lows despite many valiant interventions. Our US government-required Environmental Impact Analysis ignored the larger wild salmon reality. It did not “tell it like it is.”
I once provided written testimony in a large, multi-station hydropower development at the time when new generation capacity was proposed. One conservation agency believed that the operations and altered flow regimes caused the substantial decline in abundance of large trout. However, after visiting the river, its hydro plants, and examining the evidence, I concluded that a simple model showed that increasing fishing effort satisfactorily explained the population decline observed over the 5 decades since hydro development. In this case, the simple reality was counter to the preferred policy option. In order to maintain false optimism, we often commit a naturalistic fallacy. We maintain that if we could just go back to the way things were, fisheries and ecosystems would be restored. This type of historically based restoration seeks to turn back the clock when there is no chance of going back. Many ecosystems have been fundamentally altered for so long that they are unlikely to recover to a pristine, historic condition. In many hydropower relicensing efforts, restoration of altered ecosystems is impossible with incremental changes in flow rules alone (Orth 2019; McManamay et al. 2015). The reality is far more complex.
Figure 1. Naturalistic fallacy is an appeal to nature in order to judge it valid or good.
I found it almost surreal to read Lackey’s essay twenty years later. Pacific Salmon are a globally significant group of fishes and many scientific innovations started with salmon studies. I suspect one could/should do a comprehensive literature review on the question of substantive change and examine the empirical evidence. The optimistic in me is inclined to seek and find only positive changes in wild salmon policy and the scientific landscape over twenty years. However, the reality is that what I’ve read indicates that Lackey was and is correct. Refer back to the Therapist’s Guide for Cassandra's Dilemma.
Lichatowich and Gayeski (2020) chronicled the numerous fallacies in Pacific Salmon management. A failed salmon management paradigm rests on the concept of single species maximum sustained yield (MSY), which is not intended to be an appropriate management objective (Gulland 1969). Additionally, the fallacies include practices that allow small populations to go extinct, reduce life history variations, swamp gene pools with hatchery plantings, encourage investments in larger vessels and gear, permit incremental loss of freshwater habitat, and manage for economic efficiency (Healey 2009).
The evolutionary consequences of overfishing (Palcovic 2011) and massive hatchery supplementation has changed many salmon populations. For example, in the Salish Sea, over 50 million Chinook Salmon are released annually to support a large mixed stock fishery off the west coast of North America. Over time, the size of hatchery Chinook Salmon has increased, making them significantly larger than natural‐origin fish and in the preferred size range for predators (Losee et al. 2019; Nelson et al. 2019). Declines in the average size and age of mature Chinook Salmon is widespread and can cause a reduction in population productivity (Ohlberger et al. 2018; Manashin et al. 2021). Survival from smolt stage to returning adult Chinook Salmon has decreased in most regions (for 123 Chinook Salmon time series ) and none of the runs monitored approach survival levels measured in the 1960s (Welch et al. 2021). Despite the many well-intentioned, valiant efforts to increase salmon populations through harvest regulation, hatchery enhancement, and habitat restoration, decreases in survival of Chinook Salmon persist. In Canada’s Skeena River, the number and population diversity of wild Sockeye Salmon has dramatically declined over the last century (Price et al. 2021). To add to a pessimistic outlook, consider the constraints that climate change will pose on wild salmon populations (Weatherndon et al. 2016; Crozier et al. 2021). These few examples highlight the reality — not optimism. An ecosystem approach has been resisted here as well as elsewhere for reasons that are not entirely valid (Fogarty 2014).
I am desperate for signs of hope as I enter the ‘disputation’ stage of the ABCDE’s of the Therapist’s Guide. If reality is bleak for salmon, how can one remain optimistic for saving the many other freshwater fishes that are not economically valuable? (Winemiller et al. 2016) Mark Kurlansky's (2020) recent book, which I read while locked at home during the covid pandemic, helped me appreciate the history, people, and many places — mountains, valleys, rivers, estuaries, and seas associated with Pacific Salmon in crisis. Others have thought about the dilemma far more than me and propose key elements of a renewed fisheries strategy, including a common vision for the future, a series of guiding principles, and specific strategies for supporting sustainable fisheries (MacDonald et al. 2000; Lach et al. 2006).
Therefore, I tentatively share a few reasons for optimism. My reasons are not original ideas, but they do represent difficult challenges that need to be broadly embraced. First, the tendency to go decades without obvious progress is one characteristic of “wicked problems.” Accepting reality is not a pessimistic response, rather it is expected for wicked problems. Informed experts seem to agree that wild salmon recovery, because of the evolving set of interconnected issues and constraints, should be addressed as a “wicked problem ” (Lachner et al 2006). I want to believe in the possibilities that persistent, passionate people when seeking to understand the complexities of peoples and places, can create a governance structure that recognizes and engages different peoples and places. We need a new policy landscape, so that scientific advances will not serve to simply document why wild salmon remain a mere fraction of historical levels.
Second, scientists should gain some perspective and humility. As MacDonald et al. (2000) explained to salmon scientists, “the ball is not in our court.” Scientists must get involved in policy deliberations, and play the appropriate role to provide facts, probabilities, and analysis, while avoiding normative science. As Lackey (2001) concludes, fisheries scientists must be “scrupulously realistic about the future.” That realistic attitude recognizes that science is not the only way to view and learn about our world. Yeah, that statement activates my gag reflex too.
Third, we need to improve communications among water users and develop collaborative approaches to cross-sectoral integration of development agendas because fisheries seldom exist in isolation from other human uses. Wisdom of crowds is the idea that large groups of people are collectively smarter than individual experts when it comes to problem-solving, decision making, innovating and predicting. The wisdom of the crowd approach for fisheries management may draw upon the collective knowledge of resource stakeholders to overcome the challenges of fisheries management (Aminpour et al. 2020). Seeing how and why many experts and stakeholders disagree may give us reason to approach a future with eyes and minds wide open to learn.
Fourth, the reality of accepting limits while understanding that others may interpret limits in different ways means we must treat salmon recovery as social problem. We should engage in the process of effectively dealing with the variety of beliefs and convictions. Philosophical debates and clashes among many stakeholders must be part of the process of wild salmon recovery (Buchal 2006). In a pluralistic society, we will not be successful persuading others on fundamental questions of what is right? Rather we should begin a deliberative dialogue (Mathews 1998), and offer arguments that appeal to fundamental values of others, even while we don’t share them. What we’ve all learned in the last year about working remotely should serve us well in creating an online process to facilitate much-needed deliberative dialogue across many jurisdictions. Lackey et al.(2006b), Healey (2009), Hand et al. (2018), and others recognized these needs for changes as they called for integration of harvest management, habitat management, and habitat enhancement by giving fishing and aboriginal communities greater responsibility and authority to manage the fisheries on which they depend.
Fifth, our western colonial worldview does not accept the idea of limits. For over four centuries the western colonial worldview has maintained we humans have the right to take everything, or limited to a MSY based on false assumptions (Figure 2 - Ego). Appreciating the long dominance of this view helps all of us to understand why after only 50 years of shouting “there are limits to growth” we are not getting through in a way that leads to substantive change. The recent increased voice of white supremacists clearly reminded me that the fundamental idea that there are "no limits (on me)” is also a key tenant of white supremacy and colonization.
Figure 2. Illustration of three different mindsets about the human relationship within the ecosystem. ‘Ego’ places humans at the apex, ‘eco’ places humans within the ecosystem, and ‘seva’ sees human role based on reciprocity, in service to others and nature. from Brown (2021). source.
The notion of two-eyed seeing, which works to engage traditional and local knowledge holders to manage and restore salmon fisheries, should provide direction.Local and indigenous knowledge can complement western science approaches (Berkes 2017; Reid et al. 2021). Educational systems in North America provide more exposure to western writers and western ways of learning and ignore indigenous approaches to understanding.For example, I often quote a western writer who wrote: “Who hears the fishes when they cry?” rather than a native American writer. Henry David Thoreau inA Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers(1849) asserted that the physical and the spiritual in human life were inseparable. In one passage he described that“In the waters of this town there are about a dozen distinct species, though the inexperienced would expect many more. It enhances our sense of the grand security and serenity of nature, to observe the still undisturbed economy and content of the fishes of this century, their happiness a regular fruit of the summer.”
The context of this famous quote (yes, famous for fishy folks) recognized the fish were admirable fellow creatures. “Away with the superficial and selfish phil-anthropy of men, — who knows what admirable virtue of fishes may be below low-water-mark, bearing up against a hard destiny, not admired by that fellow-creature who alone can appreciate it! Who hears the fishes when they cry? It will not be forgotten by some memory that we were contemporaries. Thou shalt erelong have thy way up the rivers, up all the rivers of the globe, if I am not mistaken.” I’m afraid no one does hear the salmon fishes when they cry. We may be too busy crying about lost human pleasures we derive from salmon, our contemporaries
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