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$9 Billion Wasted – 40 Years of Conservation Spending Fails To Improve Columbia Basin Wild Fish Stocks

Despite over $9 billion spent on conservation efforts in the Columbia River Basin over four decades, research from Oregon State University reveals no improvement in wild salmon and steelhead stocks. While hatchery-reared salmon numbers have risen, the abundance of wild, naturally spawning fish has not seen a net increase, with issues from hydropower, overharvesting, and other human activities compounding the problem.

Over $9 billion in inflation-adjusted tax dollars spent on conservation over four decades has not resulted in a notable increase in wild salmon and steelhead populations in the Columbia River Basin, reveals a study from Oregon State University.

The research, led by William Jaeger from the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences, analyzed 50 years of data. It suggests that although the numbers of hatchery-reared salmon have risen, there is no indication of net growth in the wild, naturally spawning salmon and steelhead populations.

The findings were recently published in the journal PLOS One.

Jaeger, a professor of applied economics, notes that steelhead and Chinook, coho, and sockeye salmon numbers have been under heavy pressure in the Columbia River Basin for more than a century and a half – initially from overharvesting, then from hydropower beginning in 1938 with the opening of Bonneville Dam, the lowermost dam on the mainstem Columbia.

“Also, farming, logging, mining, and irrigation caused landscape changes and habitat degradation, which compounded the problems for the fish,” said Jaeger, who collaborated on the paper with Mark Scheuerell, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of WashingtonFounded in 1861, the University of Washington (UW, simply Washington, or informally U-Dub) is a public research university in Seattle, Washington, with additional campuses in Tacoma and Bothell. Classified as an R1 Doctoral Research University classification under the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, UW is a member of the Association of American Universities.” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]”>University of Washington.

An estimated 16 million salmon and steelhead once returned from the Pacific to the portions of the basin above Bonneville Dam, but by the 1970s there were fewer than 1 million fish, prompting the federal government to intervene.

Juvenile Steelhead Trout

Juvenile steelhead trout in a natural stream environment. Credit: John McMillan

The Northwest Power Act of 1980 required fish and wildlife goals to be considered in addition to power generation and other objectives. The act created the Northwest Power and Conservation Council to set up conservation programs financed by Bonneville Power Administration revenues. 

The cost and scale of restoration efforts grew considerably in the 1990s, Jaeger said, following the listing of 12 Columbia River runs of salmon and steelhead as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

The public’s tab for conservation spending now exceeds $9 billion in inflation-adjusted 2020 U.S. dollars, the researchers said, which does not take into account all monies that have been spent by local governments and non-governmental agencies.

“The actual impact of all of these efforts has always been poorly understood,” Jaeger said. “Lots of people have long been concerned about a lack of evidence of salmon and steelhead recovery. One of the issues is that most studies evaluating restoration efforts have examined individual projects for specific speciesA species is a group of living organisms that share a set of common characteristics and are able to breed and produce fertile offspring. The concept of a species is important in biology as it is used to classify and organize the diversity of life. There are different ways to define a species, but the most widely accepted one is the biological species concept, which defines a species as a group of organisms that can interbreed and produce viable offspring in nature. This definition is widely used in evolutionary biology and ecology to identify and classify living organisms.” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]”>species, life stages, or geographic areas, which limits the ability to make broad inferences at the basin level.”

Thus, Jaeger notes, a key question has persisted, and its answer is critical for sound policy and legal decisions: Is there any evidence of an overall boost in wild fish abundance that can be linked to the totality of the recovery efforts?

Based on a half-century of fish return data at Bonneville Dam, the single entry point to the basin above the dam, the evidence does not support a yes answer.

“We found no evidence in the data that the restoration spending is associated with a net increase in wild fish abundance,” Jaeger said.

He said the Northwest Power and Conservation Council set a goal of increasing total salmon and steelhead abundance in the basin to 5 million fish by 2025, but annual adult returns at Bonneville Dam averaged less than 1.5 million in the 2010s.

And while hatchery production has helped with overall numbers of adult fish, Jaeger added, it has also adversely affected wild stocks through a range of mechanisms including genetics, disease, competition for habitat and food, and predation on wild fish by hatchery fish.

“The role of hatcheries in recovery plans is controversial for many reasons, but results do indicate that hatchery production combined with restoration spending is associated with increases in returning adult fish,” Jaeger said. “However, we found that adult returns attributable to spending and hatchery releases combined do not exceed what we can attribute to hatcheries alone. We looked at ocean conditions and other environmental variables, hatchery releases, survival rates for hatchery released fish, and conservation spending, and we saw no indication of a positive net effect for wild fish.”

Even expenditures on “durable” habitat improvements designed to cumulatively benefit naturally spawning wild salmon and steelhead over many years did not lead to evidence of a return on these investments, he added.

Reference: “Return(s) on investment: Restoration spending in the Columbia River Basin and increased abundance of salmon and steelhead” by William K. Jaeger and Mark D. Scheuerell, 28 July 2023, PLOS ONE.
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0289246

Source: SciTechDaily