VANCOUVER, British Columbia - Efforts to save wild salmon have ignored fundamental factors that stand in the way of success, including the rapidly growing population of the Northwest, increasing water demand and the inability of people to limit their consumption, scientists said Thursday.
"It is arguable that no solution is possible until we recognize these root problems," said William E. Rees, a professor of ecological economics at the University of British Columbia. "If we don't confront our nature, we will be destined to repeat our history and potentially the next societal collapse will be on a global scale."
The comments came at the World Summit on Salmon, a gathering of about 160 scientists, fishing and environmental advocates and government officials sponsored by Simon Fraser University.
Robert Lackey, a fisheries biologist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Corvallis, Ore., said the reasons for the collapse of salmon are well-known: overfishing, destruction of habitat by urban development, logging and agriculture, dams, hatcheries, water withdrawals for irrigation and predation by birds and marine mammals.
Despite strong returns in the Columbia Basin in recent years due to an upswing in ocean conditions, wild salmon populations in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California remain on a downward trend that began 150 years ago, he said.
One big problem is population in the Pacific Northwest, which is expected to grow from the current 15 million to more than 50 million in the next century, leading to increasing competition for water and habitat,
Lackey said. Yet the issue is largely ignored, he said.
Rees suggested history is full of examples showing humans are unable to limit their consumption, and thus cannot sustain themselves.
Rees compared the world's failure to act on recent disclosures that ocean fisheries have declined by 90 percent to the people of Easter Island in the South Pacific cutting their last tree about 500 years ago - even though they knew trees were vital for building canoes to catch fish and rollers to move their huge iconic statues.
The result was the collapse of their society and population.
"How was it that people couldn't recognize the writing on the wall?" Rees asked. "We are in a state of denial. We treat the symptoms and don't treat the fundamental problems."
As society works to make the global economy more efficient, wild salmon get left behind, Lackey said. While some wild runs will probably hang on, the bulk of salmon are likely to come from hatcheries.
Jennifer L. Nielsen, fisheries supervisor at the U.S. Geological Survey Alaska Science Center said even fish released from hatcheries on the other side of the Pacific can hurt wild runs in North America.
She outlined research showing pink salmon from hatcheries in Japan and the Russian Far East feed in the same parts of the ocean as Alaskan sockeye.
Years of large hatchery releases in Asia matched up with years of low sockeye returns in Alaska.
The drought and energy crisis of 2001 showed how little people really value wild salmon, Lackey said.
The Bonneville Power Administration was able to use Columbia River water reserved for salmon to generate more electricity to run air conditioners, with little public outcry.
"We will probably continue to spend billions of dollars in a restoration effort that will likely be only marginally successful over the long term," Lackey concluded.
Rees said it is "hardwired into our genes to expand into all niche spaces available to us," so that when resources begin to collapse, humans mask the effects through trade and technology.