Volcanic crater lake in Kamchatka

Volcanic crater lake in Kamchatka

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Why Is Salmon Conservation Important?

Author: Guido R. Rahr, III

Guido Rahr is the President of The Wild Salmon Center.

This essay is a response to the question: "Why choose salmon as a focus of conservation efforts?"

The question of "why salmon?" can only be answered if we first ask, "Why salmon for what outcome?" I suggest this outcome be a system of healthy and protected coastal ecosystems along the northern Pacific Rim, from California to Korea.

I am defining "coastal" as draining into the Pacific Ocean and "ecosystem" as a watershed or basin, from headwaters to the sea. "Healthy"refers to a full complement of biological diversity and ecosystem processes. "Protected" means that it has the highest chance of sustaining its health and productivity over time.

Why are Pacific coastal ecosystems important?

Coastal watersheds are among the most productive biological communities on earth.

The salmon rivers of the North Pacific Rim watersheds and estuaries are extremely rich, producing food and fiber for the people of the Pacific Rim. In addition to large runs of salmon, trout and char, coastal watersheds produce many types of commercially valuable shellfish and fish, as well as marine mammals such as seals, terrestrial fauna and resident and migratory birds. The temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest produce more standing biomass than any terrestrial ecosystems on earth.

Coastal watersheds contain the combined biological diversity of the Pacific Rim's marine, freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems.

It is self-evident that all terrestrial and freshwater biodiversity resides in watersheds, which are the natural geographic unit for coastal conservation. By selecting watersheds that capture the different biogeographic regions of the Pacific Rim, a full range of biodiversity can be protected.

Coastal watersheds and salmon rivers are beautiful.

This is a subjective statement, but many believe that rivers and forests are beautiful, especially when one can see the silver, green and red forms of wild salmon swimming upstream through the clear depths of a river.

Why focus on salmon to save Pacific Rim coastal ecosystems?

By focusing on salmon, we have the highest probability of protecting coastal ecosystems.

Salmon are the best species indicator of coastal ecosystem health.

Salmon are inseparable from their freshwater and estuarine ecosystems. This is true of all species, but especially true of salmon. Juvenile salmon and steelhead use the entire river ecosystem, from headwaters to the ocean. They are extremely sensitive to changes in water quality, trophic webs and upstream perturbations to the river flow, turbidity and temperature. Juvenile salmonids feed on freshwater invertebrates that are also indicators of water quality. Generally, the more pristine, diverse and productive the freshwater ecosystem is, the healthier the salmon stocks. Declines in the capacity of a watershed to grow juvenile salmonids can indicate declining ecosystem health.

Salmon are the biological foundation, or keystone species, of coastal ecosystems and human economies.

Salmon runs function as enormous pumps that push vast amounts of marine nutrients upstream to the headwaters of otherwise low productivity rivers. Salmon carcasses are the primary food for aquatic invertebrates and fish, as well as terrestrial fauna ranging from marine mammals to birds--eagles, ducks and songbirds--to terrestrial mammals, especially bears and humans.

In coastal watersheds in the northwestern United States and Canada, recent studies have shown that salmon and other anadromous fish bring biomass and nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, carbon and micronutrients) from the sea into freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems. For example, over 40 species of mammals and birds in southeast Alaska forage on salmon eggs, juveniles and adults in freshwater1. In addition, the growth and reproductive success of salmon has been linked to the biomass of salmon carcasses in the system2. Sockeye salmon runs in southeast Alaska add up to 170 tons of phosphorous per year to Lake Illiamna3, and the number of salmon carcasses carried by brown bears to within 100 meters of streams adds phosphorous to terrestrial systems at a rate of 6.77 kg/ha -- the equivalent application rate of commercial fertilizers for evergreen trees4.

It is no coincidence that the largest remaining populations of apex predators such as brown bears and eagles occur where they are still healthy salmon runs.

Coastal human communities depend on salmon for protein as well as income. In 1992, Pacific salmonids including trout, steelhead, salmon and char supported commercial and recreational fishing industries that produced over $1 billion in personal income and more than 60,000 jobs in the region5. Alaskan salmon exports generate over $700 million each year6, and 80% of Kamchatka, Russia's economy is dependent on salmon and other seafood. Native people of the Pacific Rim not only depend on salmon for food, but also as a critical component of their traditional culture.

Salmon are a flagship symbol for building support for the conservation of the coastal ecosystems of the northern Pacific Rim.

The protection of selected Pacific Rim ecosystems may entail forgoing certain types of development that are incompatible with ecosystem health, such as mining, dam building and forest clearcutting. To accomplish this, there must be public support. But it is difficult to capture public sympathy for something as amorphous as an "ecosystem". Using a single species without a constituency as a flagship is also risky, as we have learned from the spotted owl and Klamath large-scale sucker conflicts. But there is broad support among a wide range of social and economic groups in the United States, Canada, Russia and Japan that healthy wild runs of salmon should survive. Polls in Washington and Oregon have consistently shown that the majority of the public is willing to make sacrifices such as increased electric rates to save salmon7.

Timothy Egan wrote that, "The Pacific Northwest is any place a salmon can get to." Most people of the northern Pacific Rim have eaten or caught a salmon, and most people think salmon are beautiful. Many native people of the Pacific Rim revere salmon as a source of life and a cultural centerpiece. As a tool to rally support for forest and water conservation, it is difficult to find a species that has more charisma and broad cultural support than salmon.

Why are salmon declining?

Because of the wide-ranging and complex life histories of salmon, they are vulnerable to impacts from headwater streams to the open ocean. As a result, most salmon stocks are dying the "death of a thousand cuts." Salmon decline is most advanced along the southern portions of their range, in Japan, southern Russia, California, Oregon and Washington. In these southern regions, overharvest is no longer the major factor, but habitat loss is dramatic and may be irreversible. In addition, most of the remaining salmon are bred and reared in hatcheries. Generally, salmon in the northern latitudes of their range--northeastern Russia, British Columbia and Alaska--have healthy habitat, but suffer from legal and illegal overharvest in both the ocean and freshwater spawning rivers. Habitat loss and overharvest are the major factors for decline in the south, as is the proliferation of land-based fish hatcheries and ocean salmon farming operations.

Why have human efforts to save salmon failed?

It is true that billions of U.S. dollars have been spent on salmon restoration efforts and that few, if any, of those efforts have succeeded. However, it is important to note that salmon restoration may yet succeed. It is still too early--only a few salmon generations--to tell.

I argue that most salmon restoration efforts have failed so far because they were implemented only after salmon stocks reached low levels of abundance. The Endangered Species Act, for example, only halted coho harvest in Oregon after the salmon were at less than 3% of historic abundance. By the time stocks had been pushed to the threshold of extinction, the factors causing their declines were entrenched. To restore salmon rivers may mean removing mainstem dams, de-watering irrigated crops, eliminating popular salmon hatchery programs and reclaiming habitat that is now home for thousands of people.

The second mistake we made was damaging and/or replacing the native, locally-adapted genetic stocks with hatchery-bred salmon. The native stocks have adapted to the challenges of each river, and are the building blocks of salmon restoration. We have weakened these native stocks by planting non-native salmon and steelhead stocks over 40 years.

The third mistake is that most of the money dedicated to salmon recovery was and is spent treating symptoms, instead of causes, of salmon decline. For example, fish management budgets are dominated by hatchery programs, which simply replace native stocks with hatchery fish and further weaken the stocks that hold the promise of long-term recovery. Habitat protection efforts have helped with such things as screening irrigation intakes and riparian fencing. But much of the money is spent on temporary fixes, such as placing logs in streams and engineering stream habitat. Much of this work is helpful for a few years, but is washed away with the first big storm. Many would argue that if the existing forested parts of watersheds were protected, stream processes would create good habitat in perpetuity. Indeed, the protection of instream flows and of existing habitat has been neglected by regional efforts. While we spend billions of dollars restoring the most degraded systems, the remaining healthy stocks and watersheds suffer from more clearcuts and development projects until these salmon stocks also join the Endangered Species List.

If we choose a "place-based conservation strategy" where do we start?

We start by selecting streams where we know we can win.

The key for all future salmon survival lies in the locally-adapted salmon races and stocks. These are organized roughly by bioregion. By choosing the rivers that have the best chance of getting watershed-level habitat protection, we can make a permanent investment. With the Pacific Northwest human population doubling roughly every fifty years, if we cannot save a few strongholds of locally-adapted salmon stocks, then we forever cut off our options for a future with salmon.

I argue that the most important challenge for long-term salmon conservation is to find and protect the remaining intact habitat. Once lost, habitat is politically and economically expensive to reclaim. It is much cheaper to protect habitat than restore it after it has been damaged. Harvest and hatcheries are easier to deal with because with public will, we can change them. For this reason, I suggest that we begin by focusing on the ecosystems with the best existing habitats and healthy native salmon stocks, and the fewest major human impacts.

Clearly, the easiest targets are along the northern parts of the Pacific Rim. But we can also save key salmon strongholds in California, the Pacific Northwest, Hokkaido and Sakhalin by focusing on smaller, more manageable watersheds, and leveraging the legions of salmon lovers to help us protect these places.

What can we accomplish?

We can create a Pacific Rim-wide system of protected, or mostly protected, salmon sanctuaries. Each sanctuary would have (a) healthy native salmon stocks, (b) enough protected habitat to sustain these stocks and the other members of the salmon ecosystem in perpetuity, (c) local human communities that benefit from and support these salmon ecosystems8, and (d) a system of monitoring and research stations--one in each sanctuary watershed--to insure that each salmon sanctuary is sustaining biodiversity and that lessons learned can be captured and transferred to other places.

Few animals have been as central to the human experience as salmon. Their annual migrations are a miracle of nature, they feed us and their presence tells us that our rivers are still healthy. But few species have proved more elusive to recover. By learning from past successes and (mostly) mistakes, acting aggressively and creatively and leveraging support from others, we can save this species, and thus save the many other species that salmon nurture, including ourselves.


Mary F. Willson and Karl C. Halupka. 1995. Anadromous fish as a keystone species in vertebrate communities. Conservation Biology 9(3):489-497.
Robert E. Bilby, Brian R. Fransen, Peter A. Bisson, and Jason K. Walter. 1998. Response of juvenile coho salmon and steelhead to the addition of salmon carcasses to two streams in southwestern Washington, U.S.A. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Science 55:1909-1918.
Hartman and Burggner 1972 in Mary F. Willson, Scott M. Gende, and Brian H. Marston. 1998. Fishes and the Forest. Bioscience. 48(6):455-462).
Mary F. Willson, Scott M. Gende, and Brian H. Marston. 1998. Fishes and the Forest. Bioscience. 48(6): 455-462).
Oregon Rivers Council Inc. 1992. The Economic Imperative of Protecting Riverine Habitat in the Pacific Northwest. Research Report No. V.
U.S. Census Bureau, State of Origin data series, 2000.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. 1996. Opinion Survey. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
This means polices that protect salmon ecosystems, local NGOs that support and watchdog salmon sanctuaries, economic feedback loops between the fish and the local communities and dedicated funding sources to sustain management.