Fish populations surge in Oregon

Lynne Kiesling

Here’s a good piece of news from the fishery and common pool resource front: salmon and steelhead populations are dramatically larger in the Pacific Northwest than anticipated, and than they were last year.

… More than 680,000 Coho salmon returned to Oregon last year, double the number in 2007. The Coho run was so bountiful the ODFW called in volunteers to herd fish into hatchery pens. There were reports of creeks so choked with salmon, “you could literally walk across on the backs of Coho,” said Grant McOmie, outdoors correspondent for a television news team in Portland.

And ODFW forecasters expect more than half a million spring Chinook salmon to start swimming upstream in March, about two and half times 2009’s run, and nearly four times what came home in 2007. That would be the biggest spring Chinook run since 1938, when Oregon began keeping records of returning Pacific fish.

It is all part of a fish rebound no one expected. In 2007, one state office warned, “Populations of anadromous [or oceangoing] fish have declined dramatically all over the Pacific Northwest. Many populations of Chinook, Coho, chum and steelhead are at a tiny fraction of their historic levels.” The year before that, a naturalist in Seattle wrote: “It is hard to find the silver lining in a situation as dire as the collapse of wild salmon off the Oregon and California coasts.”

This is very good news. I don’t, though, think that we can declare victory in our challenging attempts to figure out how to govern the commons in fishing, which is extremely tricky and complex. In fact, I interpret this population surge as indicating just how complex a system a fishery is, where the set of interacting effects on fish populations is large — overfishing, pesticides, changes in glacial melting patterns, changes in ocean temperatures that affect how much plankton is available (and how nutritious it is), etc. etc. In such a complex system, flexible and adaptive institutions such as individual transferable quotas and catch shares can at least deal with the overfishing variable (earlier KP posts on fishing, ITQs, etc. are here).