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Scientific Consensus Plays Role in Debate Over Wild Salmon Recovery

February 17, 1997

Science may be pointing a way out of the gridlock over rehabilitating wild Pacific salmon in the Columbia River basin, where once-annual spawning runs of 20 million fish have greatly diminished.

Listen to John Magnuson on National Public Radio with RealAudio.

Magnuson particpated in an hour-long live broadcast of NPR’s “Science Friday” on the fate of Pacific Salmon.

John Magnuson, a University of Wisconsin–Madison zoologist who chaired a National Research Council (NRC) study on Pacific salmon, says the politically charged environment among interest groups makes it hard to distinguish between credible and “tainted” science.

The answer may be in a new independent scientific board that will better integrate salmon research and management. Created by the Northwest Power Planning Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service, the board has been broadened to include more disciplines and wider responsibility, Magnuson said.

“Public agencies have the money devoted to research, but it has been difficult to make the hard decisions to move ahead,” Magnuson said today during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle. Magnuson served on a panel discussion of how scientific consensus can contribute to the recovery of Pacific salmon.

The topic has taken on urgency with the recognition that a lot of genetic diversity is being lost forever. Pacific salmon have disappeared from 40 percent of their native breeding ranges in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California over the last century. Many unique, locally adapted populations have become extinct in some rivers, he said.

Despite spending roughly $100 million a year to help rehabilitate the fishery, many wild populations are still dwindling, added Magnuson, director of UW–Madison’s Limnology Laboratory.

The 1995 NRC report “Upstream: Salmon and Society in the Pacific Northwest,” recommended solutions that cover the total expanse that salmon inhabit, from mid-Pacific schools to major rivers to spring-fed tributaries. The human influences that occur all along that route will have an impact on salmon survival. “There is no magic bullet, but recovery is doable if problems are addressed across this geographic range,” he said.

One surprise from the report is that fish hatcheries, created a century ago to restore salmon stocks depleted by dams and overfishing, have in themselves contributed to the decline of wild salmon stocks. The hatchery-raised fish are replenished at a much faster rate than native fish, greatly reducing the percentage of native fish over time, he said.

The NRC report recommends operating hatcheries as laboratories for understanding more about wild fish, and rehabilitating wild populations instead of producing fish for capture. It also calls for cutbacks in ocean fishing, as well as logging and cattle grazing that degrade water quality.

The Pacific salmon debate is as politically complicated as any natural resources controversy in the country, Magnuson said. The different stakeholders include Native American tribes, the electric power industry, mining and agriculture practitioners, anglers and local watershed groups. It also transcends national borders, as the U.S. and Canada have disputes over fishing.

But the image of the salmon resonates deeply with people. “The salmon is an icon to the culture of the Northwest,” he said. “It is intimately connected to Native American culture, to cuisine, to art and to economies. The image of the salmon is ubiquitous to the region.

“The region will have deeply lost something if wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest become a relic of the past.”

CONTACT: John Magnuson, (608) 262-3014

Tags: research