Salmon recovery in Idaho: what is a big fish worth?

Author:Barney, L. Dwayne, Jr.

Within the western United States, Idaho is the only landlocked state with a chinook salmon run. Every summer chinook salmon, called "kings" in Alaska, complete a 900-mile journey up the Columbia, Snake, and Salmon River systems to spawn in the crystal-clear headwaters of the Salmon River and its tributaries. The salmon run is one of nature's marvels, and anyone that witnesses schools of the magnificent fish working their way up a small mountain stream is sure to be awestruck.

Unfortunately, a "tragedy of the commons" has jeopardized the future of Idaho's anadromous fish runs, including chinook salmon, steelhead, and sockeye (collectively called "salmon" here). Dams along the Snake and Columbia River have also contributed to the salmon's decline. However, recent data suggest that improving technology is increasingly able to mitigate damage to the salmon from the dams. But beyond the dams, serious threats to the fishes' long-term survival result from difficulties in defining and enforcing property rights for the fish. Salmon born in Idaho follow the Snake, Salmon, and Clearwater Rivers to the Columbia River and then downstream to the Pacific Ocean. The salmon spend the majority of their adult life in the ocean, entering fishing waters off the shores of Oregon, Washington, Canada and Alaska. After three or four years in the ocean, they re-enter the Columbia River for the long migration back upstream to spawn. Native Americans and sports fishermen throughout the Pacific Northwest vigorously pursue the salmon during their upstream journey. Once they reach Idaho a short salmon fishing season of uncertain duration occurs, causing sportsmen to race to harvest the fish before the Idaho Department of Fish and Game announces the fishing cutoff date.

Competing interests have led to a spirited debate regarding whether the salmon run is worth protecting, what steps should be taken to preserve the run, and at what cost. To a large extent the debate has been dominated by politicians, lawyers, spokespersons for various interested parties, and fish biologists. Economists, whose expertise is precisely in weighing and evaluating tradeoffs, have not played a significant role in the discussions. With minimal participation by economists, little attention has been given to exploring private market solutions to enhance the run and provide for the optimal use of the resource.

The costs of preserving salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest are enormous. The Bonneville Power Administration, charged with marketing electricity from dams on the Snake and Columbia Rivers, spent over $576 million in 2005 on fish and wildlife conservation in the Pacific Northwest, much of that spending being directed at facilitating the passage of salmon over the dams in their migration to and from the ocean. (1) The $576 million spent by the Bonneville Power Administration is reflected in rates paid by consumers of electricity throughout the Pacific Northwest. Federal spending through The Pacific Coast Salmon Recovery Fund totaled an additional $88.2 million in fiscal year 2005. (2) Add to that the spending associated with the operation of state-run salmon hatcheries, fish and wildlife departments, and so on. In short, taxpayers, electric ratepayers, and--to a much lesser extent--fishermen, are paying an enormous price to safeguard the Pacific Northwest's salmon runs. Given the costs involved, anyone with even the most basic understanding of

economics principles is likely to cringe at the sight of pickup trucks lined up by the side of Idaho's Little Salmon River with Native Americans selling freshly caught chinook for $4 a pound.

Greater attention needs to be paid to formulating public policy that directs scarce resources to their highest valued use. In the case of Idaho's salmon, there is some question as to whether the runs are worth preserving at all, given the enormity of the costs involved. And, if the runs are saved, consideration needs to be given to the issue of how to optimally allocate the fish to interested parties so as to create proper incentives for resource use and conservation. It is the goal of this paper to approach some of the issues of Idaho's salmon runs from the perspective of an economist. The paper does not intend to provide a thorough cost/benefit analysis, but rather the objective is to organize thinking about some of the problems in terms of economics principles, and to provide a potential launching pad for further inquiry leading to rational public policy.

Salmon and the Dams

Numerous biologists, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, many fishermen, and self-proclaimed "environmentalists" tend to spotlight man-made dams as the primary culprit in reducing salmon runs in Idaho. They target a series of four dams on the Snake River that create dead water and allegedly prevent the young smolt from reaching the ocean. Also, power-generating turbines at the dams can have the negative side effect of killing smolt on their downstream journey.

What is often ignored is that rapidly improving technology has made the dams much less of an obstacle to the salmon's survival than they used to be. Fish ladders provide a means for returning adult fish to climb the dams when heading upstream. The ladders appear to be a success, and (debatably) do not represent any more of an obstacle to the upward migration of salmon than can occur in a naturally flowing river in the form of rapids and small waterfalls. A free-flowing river can provide numerous and ever-changing challenges for migrating salmon to confront on their journey. For example, the Dalles Dam on the Columbia River flooded and eliminated Celilo Falls, which was a great barrier for salmon and thus resulted in large congregations of fish below the falls. As a result of the large numbers of impeded fish, Celilo Falls was one of the favorite fishing spots of Native Americans. Wooden scaffolds were constructed below the falls, providing a means for fishermen to walk out over the river and gain access to the blocked salmon, which were then harvested by scooping the fish out with dip nets. Hundreds of fishermen would gather below the falls during the height of the salmon run. Photographs taken prior to construction of the Dalles Dam depict hordes of fishermen standing on scaffolds below a turbulent torrent of water rushing over a large fall--an obstacle that appears to be much more daunting for a migrating salmon when compared to two carefully constructed fish ladders at the Dalles Dam.

The biggest issue with the dams is not how to get the returning adult salmon over them, but rather how to facilitate the passage of young ocean-bound smolt downstream past the barriers. One solution has been the use of barges; the young fish are trapped at collection points above the dams and are simply barged downstream past Bonneville Dam, which is the last dam smolt must cross on their downstream journey before the Columbia River reaches the ocean. (3) For the fish that aren't barged downstream, improvements are continually being made to the dams and turbines to allow fish passage with minimal mortality. Bypass systems are in place and are regularly improved; these systems facilitate the...

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