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Education: A Remedy to the Tragedy of the Commons

While millions of dollars are invested annually in salmon fisheries research, new findings are only rarely incorporated into policies set by resource managers.

While millions of dollars are invested annually in salmon Salmon Fisheriesfisheries research, new findings are only rarely incorporated into policies set by resource managers. From California to the Arctic, fishery scientists are studying various aspects of salmonid biology, ecology, and behavior. The results of these studies are intended to be utilized by policy makers to meet ESA recovery objectives and promote the sustainability of our salmon fisheries for future generations; nevertheless, year after year, the changes required to prevent the degradation of our salmon resources are slow, if ever, to come (Lichatowich 2013).

Much of the resistance to fisheries reform in the Pacific Northwest comes from within the management agencies themselves, which are fundamentally entrenched in a commodity production system developed shortly after the industrial revolution (ibid). Grounded in outdated science and philosophy, the great diversity of unique salmon life-histories is mostly ignored and the internal machinery of management is geared toward the artificial propagation of a homogenized salmon product (ibid). Natural diversity and the sustainability it brings are sacrificed for efficiency and short term earnings.  Heavily invested in production infrastructure, management preserves the status-quo and rarely admits to the failure of its conservation efforts.

However, it is not just resource managers who are responsible for the unsustainably slow pace of fisheries reform. It is often the scientists themselves, failing to translate their results to the public and lacking courage to confront management failures that have unintentionally contributed to the problem (Hughes 2014). Without understanding the consensus of the scientific community, the public has frequently pressured policy makers to maintain management practices that ultimately degrade the resources they intend to advance; this comes at the expense of future generations.

hatchery 1In no other case is this problem more evident than with the Pacific Northwest’s salmon and trout hatchery programs. Blindly believing in the myth of hatchery success, resource management agencies enabled habitat loss, dam construction, and overharvest for 135 years (Lichatowich and Bakke 2012). As a result, salmon and steelhead are now extinct in over 40 percent of their historical range (Lichatowich 1999). Throughout the collapse, few bothered to analyze the potential genetic and ecological effects of hatchery production—which, as it turns out—played one of the most significant roles in the decline of wild populations (Federal Caucus 1999).

For the last three decades, the peer-reviewed scientific literature has been stacking up regarding the detrimental impacts most hatchery programs inflict upon wild salmon and trout populations (Nehlsen et al. 1991; Reisenbichler 1999; Chilcote et al. 2011). Countless dollars have been invested to research hatchery impacts that continue to negatively affect the survival and reproductive success of ESA-listed populations (Christie et al. 2014). Despite this, it seems these valuable experiments and their results do little but gather dust. Is all of this well intentioned and informative research simply a waste of time and money?

Invested in a hatchery production system worth over hatchery 2one-billion taxpayer dollars and unwilling to admit failure, management has shown little will to incorporate the best available science and make the reforms necessary to meet salmon recovery objectives. Washington’s Fish and Wildlife Department still boldly claims that conventional hatchery practices are “essential tools in the conservation of native salmon stocks” (WDFW 2015). At the same time, scientists have failed to communicate to the public the truth behind the hatchery problem. After all, scientific journals are not freely available to the public, nor is the language understandable to the laymen. Lacking knowledge of the scientific evidence, commercial, recreational, and tribal fishers have fought tooth and nail to maintain, or even increase hatchery production. As a result, the majority of the WDFW budget set aside for “the protection and restoration of the state’s fish species” continues to be spent on hatchery production, which, for the most part, contributes further toward the decline of the resource (ibid). The remaining funds are divided to address the root of the salmon’s problem—habitat, overharvest, and hydroelectric dams. Can you imagine what could be accomplished if the great majority of funding went toward projects that actually advanced the recovery, rather than the collapse of wild salmon?

The result of such a wise allocation of salmon recovery funding is hard to fathom, and it would surely be deemed radical. This science based approach to promote self-reproducing, sustainable, wild salmon runs has never even been considered by the public or the resource managers who claim to be conserving Washington’s fish resources and ecosystems with over 140 hatchery production facilities (ibid). Considering the threatened and endangered status of many of our wild salmon and steelhead populations, it is time that scientists rise to the challenge and let their knowledge be heard (Hughes 2014). The public must be educated about these issues and informed of the large-scale problems that continue to threaten the very existence of our region’s cultural icon. In the absence of such an action, it is highly likely that a misguided public will continue to support its own destruction.

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