Conservation spending over decades has not boosted wild salmon and steelhead populations

Oregon State University research shows that despite four decades of conservation spending exceeding $9 billion in inflation-adjusted tax dollars, wild salmon and steelhead stocks in the Columbia River Basin have not improved. The study, led by William Jaeger, indicates that while hatchery-reared salmon numbers have increased, there’s no evidence of a net increase in wild, naturally spawning salmon and steelhead. Factors like overharvesting, hydropower, farming, logging, mining, and habitat degradation have heavily impacted these fish populations for over a century and a half. Despite efforts since the 1980 Northwest Power Act, which required fish and wildlife goals to be considered alongside power generation, the situation hasn’t significantly improved. The findings were published in PLOS One.

In the 1990s, restoration efforts for salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin escalated after 12 runs of these fish were listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The cost and scale of conservation spending surpassed $9 billion in inflation-adjusted 2020 U.S. dollars, not including funds spent by local governments and non-governmental agencies.

Despite these extensive efforts, the impact of the restoration work has remained poorly understood. Most studies evaluating restoration projects have been limited to specific species, life stages, or geographic areas, hindering broader conclusions at the basin level.

The crucial question remains: Is there any evidence of an overall increase in wild fish abundance linked to the totality of recovery efforts? Based on a half-century of fish return data at Bonneville Dam, the evidence does not support a positive answer. There’s no indication that restoration spending has led to a net increase in wild fish abundance.

While hatchery production has contributed to overall adult fish numbers, it has negatively affected wild stocks through various means, including genetic issues, disease, competition for habitat and food, and predation by hatchery fish on wild fish.

Even investments in “durable” habitat improvements designed to benefit naturally spawning wild salmon and steelhead over the long term did not show evidence of a return on these investments.

Source: Oregon State University

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