More people and far fewer fish, scientists warn

Friday, June 13, 2003


VANCOUVER, B.C. -- Northwesterners' love for their sport utility vehicles and neighborhood Starbucks directly contradicts their professed adoration of the region's wild salmon, scientists warned here yesterday at an international meeting on salmon policy.

The biggest danger to the survival of wild salmon is the population juggernaut that will see the Pacific Northwest's population surge from today's 15 million to 50 million or more by century's end, researchers said at the World Summit on Salmon.

But there's also an off chance that enough of those people could learn enough about their ecological "footprint" to preserve healthy salmon stocks, some of the more optimistic participants said.

Still, the overall mood was bleak.

University of British Columbia ecologist William Rees pointed to the slide of Northwest salmon stocks over the last 150 years as emblematic of humans' inability to recognize that they are overwhelming ecosystems that support them. For instance, more than a third of Columbia River salmon stocks are extinct and a fifth are highly endangered.

"Are humans fatally successful?" Rees asked at the gathering of about 160 scientists, fishing and environmental advocates and government officials. "The problems we're seeing with fisheries collapses ... (are) merely a reflection of a much broader problem that we're failing to recognize."

People repeatedly come up with technological improvements that seem to offer promise, only to find later that they don't really solve the problem, Rees said.

The salmon aquaculture industry of British Columbia was intended to take pressure off wild stocks, but Rees said it's a perfect example of how people ignore their true ecological impact. For every pound of farmed salmon produced, some 4 to 5 pounds of different kinds of wild fish are killed to create fish food, his research shows.

"It consumes vast quantities of resources for diminishing returns," Rees said, yet people continue to cling to the hope that aquaculture can feed the world.

In the Northwest, humans realized the salmon's plight and in 1991 protected the first salmon stock under the Endangered Species Act. More stocks followed, but when the drought and market-driven electricity shortage of 2001 hit, the Bonneville Power Administration used water supposedly reserved to help salmon to generate power instead.

"In one of the most striking recent barometers of competing societal priorities, air conditioners -- electricity -- won out over both wild and hatchery-bred salmon and with scant public opposition," said Robert Lackey, an Environmental Protection Agency fisheries biologist from Corvallis, Ore.

"No street protests. ... No environmental group blanketing the Internet with calls to mobilize fax machines in defense of salmon. Near complete silence."

Rees said it's a global phenomenon. He referred to a recent report in the scientific journal Nature showing that stocks of large fish have plunged by 90 percent worldwide since World War II. The story's life span on television and radio was about three hours, he said, and people quickly forgot about it.

"What the hell is going on?" he asked the gathering, calling for the Canadian government to organize an international negotiation over how to address the shortage.

Lackey called for "uncompromising ecological realism." He said the main factors affecting salmon abundance that are under human control are competition for natural resources, especially water; increasing human population; the drive for economic efficiency through globalization; and "individual and collective lifestyle choices and priorities."

But he predicted, "We will probably continue to spend billions of dollars in a restoration effort that will likely only be marginally successful over the long-term."

Several speakers cited urban sprawl in this region -- symbolized by our appetite for SUVs, computers, McDonald's and Starbucks -- as a death knell for salmon.

Lackey said the most important step that could be taken by Northwesterners who are really committed to bringing back wild salmon is "move out of the Northwest."

Failing that, he said, the most important step people can take is to stop eating salmon harvested in the Northwest, because wild salmon are killed even when fishermen target hatchery-produced fish.

The region needs to address a growth pattern that is on its way to producing a megalopolis stretching from Olympia to Vancouver -- "Seavan," Lackey calls it, which will be the size of today's Mexico City -- and another one stretching from Portland to Eugene that he dubs "Portgene." In region after region worldwide, that kind of development has hammered salmon stocks, said Malcolm Windsor, secretary of the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization, which administers an international salmon treaty.

He ticked off a series of European locations to support his point. Yet in Kamchatka, the peninsula forming the remote eastern edge of mainland Asia, "salmon populations are the happiest and the human populations are the lowest," Windsor said.

Even at the Thames River in London, once a thoroughly polluted toxic zone where salmon were wiped out, cleanup efforts have opened the river to salmon again, he noted. "Maybe attitudes could change and a larger human population could put down a smaller footprint," Windsor said hopefully.

But he said it's also possible that something unseen -- disease, a fertility drop or some other factor -- could lead to a crash of the human population. "

At least think of it the good way -- the salmon will be happy," he said.