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Wild salmon recovery and inconvenient reality along the west coast of North America: indulgences atoning for guilt?

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The history of efforts to reverse the long‐term decline of Pacific salmon in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and British Columbia provides instructive policy lessons for their recovery. From California to southern British Columbia, wild runs of Pacific salmon have declined over the long‐term and many have disappeared. Billions have been spent in so‐far failed attempts to reverse the decline. The annual expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars continues, but a sustainable future for wild salmon in this region remains elusive. Despite documented public support for restoring wild salmon, the long‐term prognosis for a sustainable future appears problematic. Fisheries scientists and others continue to craft restoration plans, but an effective, politically viable approach has yet to emerge, which will actually restore and sustain most runs of wild salmon in the region. For wild salmon, restoration options exist that offer both ecological viability and appreciably lower social disruption, but these options also tend to have more modest restoration objectives. Perhaps these billions of dollars being spent to recover wild salmon should be considered ‘guilt money’—modern‐day indulgences—a tax that society and individuals willingly endure to alleviate collective and individual remorse. It is money spent on activities unlikely to achieve the recovery of wild salmon, but perhaps it helps many feel better as we continue the behaviors and choices that essentially preclude their recovery. WIREs Water 2015, 2:433–437. doi: 10.1002/wat2.1093 This article is categorized under: Water and Life > Conservation, Management, and Awareness
Runs of wild salmon in California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho are typically less than 5–10% of their historical size. Many runs are extinct (Photo: Robert T. Lackey).
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Supplemental stocking of salmon produced in hatcheries currently supports most fishing, but hatchery‐produced salmon do not fully replace the biological role of wild salmon (Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers).
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Human population growth is projected to increase several fold during this century in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and British Columbia and will create higher demand for already scarce water resources (Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers).
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Dams and irrigation structures have greatly altered the freshwater environment for salmon. Other fish species, particularly nonnative ones, have prospered in these altered aquatic environments (Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers).
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Starting in 1848, gold mining in and around salmon streams of the California Central Valley decimated salmon runs. Conversely, salmon runs in Alaska and northern British Columbia continue to prosper because those aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems have been minimally altered. (Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service).
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