The Value of Restoring Salmon and Habitat

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The Modesto Bee decided to reprint an article from last week’s Fresno Bee on the efforts to restore the San Joaquin River, and with it, the river’s salmon.

Sadly, the Fresno Bee (and thus, the Modesto Bee) article grossly undervalues salmon restoration, beginning with a comparison of the numbers of returning salmon to the cost of building a hatchery.  The article’s claim that the project will spend over $20 million dollars for 40,000 fish ignores the facts of salmon reproduction cycles and their impacts on their environments.

Spawning fish are just the beginning and end of a vital interaction with salmon habitat.  A more accurate representation of this interaction adds the numbers of eggs, fry (newborn fish), smolt (young fish), and adult salmon in the oceans that these fish contribute – anywhere between 1,500 and 10,000 per spawning pair.  This one river restoration project, then, will provide a yearly average of between 6 and 40 million eggs.  At $21 million, then, the price tag drops to between 52.5¢ and $3.50 per egg.

Some may argue that these numbers are overblown because most will die as fry in the river, but their deaths in the river are not a loss; indeed, their deaths add to the river’s restoration.

Additionally, many thousands make it to the ocean, bolstering our wild populations and contributing to the health of salmon up and down the coast.  How many of these fish will grow to adulthood, and be consumed by orcas, sharks, seals, sea lions, and many of us?

Beyond the inappropriate number associated with the restored salmon population, the article misses the larger picture:  The project aims to restore 25,000 adult spawning fish by 2025 (as Mark Grossi points out in a much more useful Fresno Bee article back in February).  If done right, many of these could spawn in the wild, contributing the nutrients they acquired from the ocean to an ecosystem that has missed this interaction for decades.  The ecosystem benefits to a healthier river system, capped by thousands of large fish returning from the ocean, need to be added to this comparison.

In all, $21 million to help restore the Central Valley is actually quite a bargain.

(Additional note:  Our own wild Yuba Spring-run Chinook will most likely help contribute eggs to the restoration of the San Joaquin run.)

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