In all the money that is devoted to the conservation of the most charismatic species, there is one that has been lifted far above what I thought was the highest plateau of funds devoted to conservation. You might at first think of the Giant Panda. You, however, as I was, would be wrong; although millions of dollars have been poured into the conservation of this Endangered species and nations around the world pay China millions more to house Pandas on loan to their zoos.
To understand why these “most conserved” species are at the top of the conservation ledger, it is first important to understand that there is a notable distinction between conservation and preservation, although the two are sometimes used interchangeably. Often when we talk about conservation, what we really mean is preservation—we work to preserve this or that species and it’s habitat for future generations, but, we don’t necessarily account for the “sustainable use” of a species that would allow a sustainable harvest of individuals from a population for human use or consumption. Pandas, most certainly, do not fit within “sustainable use” conservation and exist about as far towards preservation as possible.
A great deal of the conservation as we know it today is a product of sustainable use calculations of forests, fish, and fowl. In this arena, conservation can be viewed as an assessment of the threats to a species through human use and the resilience of such a species to these uses. Forests are often conserved for use as timber or as natural capital reserves—indeed the U.S. National Forest system is predicated on the idea that forests are a national resource that deserves investment and conservation for future use. Similarly some of the first species conservation laws were designed to encourage the sustainable harvesting of fish and fowl in an attempt to use models of population dynamics to optimize the number of individuals that could be harvested from a population without that population disappearing.
Within this definition of conservation, Salmon are kings of conservation and top the list as the most conserved species. “More money has been invested in salmon conservation than any other taxonomic group” says Wild Salmon Center’s Senior Conservation Biologist and IUCN Salmon Specialist Group Chair Dr. Peter Rand, and once we dive into the fascinating world of salmon, it’s easy to see why. Within the North American Pacific, salmon are a complex of seven species: Chinook, coho, chum, pink, sockeye, masu, and steelhead (aka rainbow trout), most of which have significant economic value. For instance, in Alaska alone the commercial value of the salmon fishery in 2013 was nearly $700 million dollars.
Salmon are anadromous and so their life cycles and populations are intricately tied into both the health of freshwater and saltwater ecosystems. As adults, they are a heavily sought-after commercial species that have seen enormous investments in hatcheries, aquaculture, and wild-catches. However, despite their ubiquity at the grocery store (most of which are farm raised, incidentally!), fishing is not the only threat to salmon populations. Salmon conservation relies on addressing hatcheries, harvests, habitats, and hydrology.
Incredible advances have been made in salmon conservation through the transparent cooperation between conservation organizations like the Wild Salmon Center and the salmon fisheries in the Pacific Ocean. This cooperation had resulted in commercial seafood certifications through the Marine Stewardship Council that encourages best-practices and helps seafood buyers and consumers make better informed choices.
Threats to salmon populations often take place far away from the commercial fisheries in the inland rivers and streams where salmon must migrate to spawn. As it turns out, once threats to salmon become established in a watershed, it is very difficult to recover populations, or reintroduce them once they are extirpated. This is one of the main reasons why the twenty eight subpopulations (identified as Evolutionarily Significant Units or Distinct Population Segments) that have been listed under the Endangered Species Act in the United States have never recovered to a point where they can be removed from the list. As Dr. Rand points out “It does indeed make you wonder if our investment in salmon recovery in the US Pacific Northwest is an effective strategy in recovering an endangered species.” The Wild Salmon Center has been pursuing a very different strategy, focusing on preserving entire watersheds in an effort to avoid problems of salmon decline brought on by land development and other threats (for recent example, read about the creation of the 80,000 acre Tugursky Nature Reserve in the Russian Far East).
We have indeed learned a great deal about the challenges of conserving this species in a human dominated landscape. The intensive land-use change that has occurred in the US Pacific Northwest has led to the extirpation of many river populations of salmon. These changes are due, in large part, to the economic and infrastructure development that accompanies a rise in extractive industries like mining, oil or natural gas development, or hydroelectric dams. These reductions in habitat quality for salmon can also be attributed to the siphoning of water for agriculture or other human use that can reduce water levels such that salmon are unable to move upstream or eggs are unable to complete their development.
The conservation of species for sustainable-use is a necessary goal, especially for species like salmon that have such large economic and nutritional benefits to people. However, it is not only people who rely on salmon. The influence of salmon on the ecosystems of the Northern Pacific at their broadest span the entire Northern Hemisphere and at the finest scale include the insects, plants, and microorganisms that benefit from expired salmon at a stream’s headwaters. Across these scales, salmon are keystone species. With this in mind, the preservation of salmon is also a laudable goal for the maintenance of ecological function, species diversity, and the health of ecosystems as they flow from salmon across seascapes, landscapes, and watersheds.
Craig R. Beatty