Salmon 2100: The Future of Wild Pacific Salmon

Wild Salmon in Western North America: The Historical and Policy Context

Robert T. Lackey, Denise H. Lach, and Sally L. Duncan


The future of wild salmon in western North America remains uncertain. Opinion polls consistently demonstrate widespread support for salmon, but the long-term decline in wild salmon abundance from southern British Columbia southward apparently continues. Short-term (several decades) improvements have been common since the decline began following discovery of gold in California in 1848, but overall, the trend has been downward.

Policy perspectives about salmon restoration are bounded by extremes. There are those who profess to be willing to bear any burden to protect and restore the remaining runs. Others assert that Pacific salmon are abundant worldwide and no species of salmon is in danger of extinction. Wild runs in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and southern British Columbia are toward the end of their southern distribution, aquatic habitats have been changed dramatically, and now, runs can be most efficiently maintained by supplemental stocking from hatcheries. Occupying a middle ground between the policy extremes, others acknowledge that salmon restoration may be an important policy priority to some in western North America, but it is only one of many competing, important policy priorities from which society must make some difficult choices. Still others question the soundness of expending substantial public resources to restore wild salmon because such efforts, they argue, have little chance of accomplishing their purpose.

In the scientific arena opinions are similarly diverse. Some credible scientists argue that restoration of wild runs is not only technically feasible, but is possible without significant disruptions to the functioning of individuals or society. Other scientists remain skeptical about the viability of wild salmon and recommend that if society wishes to maintain salmon, it must require technocratic intervention, such as hatcheries or spawning channels.