The Future of Wild Pacific Salmon

Former Sitka Reporter Andrew Miller recently attended a presentation in Juneau by Dr. Robert Lackey on "The Future of Pacific Salmon." Of course, the Sitka Conservation Society is extremely interested in the future of pacific salmon. Salmon are the backbone of the Tongass ecosystems as well as a critical component of the economies of the communities of Southeast Alaska. Andrew wrote the following dispatch from that presentation to summarize the findings of Dr. Lackey:

For me, the biggest takeaway from a recent lecture by Dr. Robert Lackey on the future of wild salmon was the critical importance of educating the public about our wild salmon runs.

Dr. Robert Lackey, a fisheries scientist at Oregon State University, explained how little awareness there is about salmon among the general population in the Pacific Northwest and how that effects policy decisions there. As an example, he noted how quickly policies to protect salmon on the Columbia River were reversed during an energy shortage in 2001. He said it was a no-brainer for decision makers when posed with a question of whether to increase the power generation of Columbia dams even if doing so would prevent fish passage. The salmon didn't get a second thought.

Lackey is the co-editor of Salmon 2100, a book that explores what steps must be taken to ensure we still have wild salmon runs in the year 2100. He was a guest of the Alaska Fish Habitat Partnership in Juneau in early November.

Although Lackey had a bleak outlook on the future of wild salmon worldwide, he expressed some optimism about the future of Alaska's wild salmon, which reinforced in me how important it is to be a vocal advocate for Alaska salmon and policies that help protect and enhance wild salmon runs.

Lackey listed a few advantages wild Alaska salmon have always enjoyed over salmon elsewhere, which have helped them to continue to thrive while wild stocks throughout much of the world have depleted to near extinction.

For one, he said, Alaska has always had an enormous salmon population. Bristol Bay alone produces more salmon than all of Oregon and Washington did when salmon runs there were at their historic highs.

Also, Lackey said, Alaska still has unmatched salmon habitat. He said natural resource development will always be a threat to habitat, but he is confident large dense populations in critical habitat areas will never develop. He said just about everything that people do is bad for salmon, and in the Pacific Northwest, where there are millions of people in giant cities along the coast, salmon habitat hasn't been much of a priority.

Finally, he said that people in Alaska care about salmon. He said people here are aware of salmon and want them to survive. This awareness absolutely needs to continue.

Lackey spoke a little about external threats to salmon, notably climate change and ocean acidification. To my surprise, he did not say these things necessarily spell doom for Alaska's wild salmon.

Lackey showed a graph of world temperatures over the last 2,000 years, which consisted of four or five cycles of warming and cooling. Current global temperatures are about high as they have been in any prior period of warming, and Lackey acknowledged that the warming is most likely going to continue for a long time, but, he said, in past warming salmon always adapted, often seeking new ranges farther north.

On a related topic, he said he wouldn't jump to conclusions about poor returns for some species of Pacific Salmon this last year. He said there are too many external factors to know what causes populations to rise and fall in a given year, and scientists really need to look at 30 year trends to assess the health of a species.

I can often be a cynic, but I left Lackey's lecture optimistic. I was reminded how fortunate we are to have our wild salmon runs in Southeast Alaska, but that it is up to us to keep them here. I know it's something we can do.

Of course, after the public is educated on the state of salmon and what we need to do to protect them, we must follow up with action to ensure that resource managers and decision makers are doing the right thing. If you want to help SCS protect salmon, we can help you take action. Check out our take action page and please think about writing a letter or making a call to tell Congress and Federal Agencies to protect our salmon stocks. Follow this link: here or call us to find out more. With your help, we can ensure that the future of Pacific Salmon is Alaska is good and that future generations can experience a wild Tongass filled with Salmon!

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