As far back as thousands of years, salmon have been an icon of the Pacific Northwest. They are still one of the defining features of the upper left of the United States, despite historically low numbers as compared to the 19th century when Europeans became aware of and started recording population numbers. They were one of the many bountiful resources that North America was rich in and that Europeans and their descendants wanted to exploit as soon as they became aware of the thousands of miles of land still yet to be traversed by Europeans. As Jim Lichatowi writes in his book, Salmon: A Cultural Icon Swamped in Industrial Monotony & Hope for the Future, Europeans sought to exploit salmon much like every other resource (beaver, timber, lamprey, etc). Once they turned a bountiful resource into a dwindling one, they still sought to “maximize profits” by applying a factory lens to the management of salmon, and many other natural resources. The hatchery fish farming that is still in place today is very much a structure meant to mimic a factory production to bring total salmon numbers up to where they had been before. By heavily investing in this idea and not cutting back on rates of fishing, the returns have been less than stellar according to the EPA. However, this has not discouraged fish hatchery proponents, but instead has spurred them to invest more capital. Typically spending more money on a process yields more efficiency in a factory setting, but as we’ve seen with historical population numbers of salmon, these populations have not rebounded to the original numbers prior to European arrival. Continuing to fish with a mentality of catching as many as possible will not make salmon magically appear out of this air, but instead reap dwindling returns.
Instead of continuing to pump money into a hatchery system in which marginal improvements are the best that can be hoped for, this investment should be set aside for restoring habitat in watershed communities where possible. Even though the simplest, and likely most effective, plan of action would be removing dams that have made it near impossible for salmon to return to main river basins such as the Columbia. Clearly, the growth of coastal communities and rise of infrastructure makes this a difficult setting to navigate. This is not likely to happen unless a more efficient and cheaper source of electricity than what is produced by dams is popularized. The best alternative to removing dams is supporting watershed trusts. There are currently nonprofits where their purpose is to buy back land in watersheds and transition it from its previous state to a nature preserve. Certain groups who criticize conservationists and environmentalists believe that letting developed areas return to a state of wetlands and swamps is “wasting” a valuable resource since it’s not producing on a farm’s scale or with a business revenue. However, these land trusts can be used as community gardens in which members of the public, young and old, can learn and master gardening skills, which is bound to attract interested wildlife. Not only do people have a community center in which they can learn valuable skills and then bring those skills to their own background, but also the literal fruits (and other produce) of their labor can be reaped (and potentially donated to community members in need) as well as contributing to restoring healthy environments for watersheds that salmon can return to.
The next option with the greatest potential for letting salmon numbers climb back up is significantly cutting back fishing quotas to let more adults return to the origin rivers and lay eggs. This approach also has its own drawback when the livelihood of the fishing community is considered. A solution to mitigate income loss for families who depend on fishing is offering job training and opportunities that are related to monitoring salmon habitat and makes use of their other skills that they would typically utilize during their regular employment. This would entail a lot of logistical work to be able to locate and match jobs to make up the difference in loss of income that would inevitably happen as a result of salmon yield being reduced. In the long run, figuring out how to economically support fishers while encourage the industry to scale back on fishing yields would ultimately ensure that fishing salmon (and other species) is viable for the upcoming generations and reduce the uncertainty that is already on the minds of many in the fishing community.
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