The Chinook Salmon Runs in the Pacific Northwest

The Chinook salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest are a cornerstone of the region’s ecosystem and economy. However, overfishing and pollution of the surrounding environment have put the Chinook salmon’s future at risk and endangered the health of populations that regularly consume the fish (Johnson et al. 2007). Recent government regulations have attempted to reverse the effects of these threats but with mixed results. A truly sustainable solution will need to address the ecosystem and economy of the salmon separately by enacting stricter pollution restriction schemes, and increasing dependence on new technologies in genetically modified and farmed salmon fisheries.

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Garrett Hardin’s essay, The Tragedy of the Commons, provides a framework with which to address the depletion of the salmon runs. Hardin defines the “commons” as a limited, freely accessible resource that any rational, self-interested man would exploit for his individual benefit (Hardin 1968). The individual decision to continue to exploit the resource is a result of a cost-benefit analysis that determines the individual benefit outweighs the added burden to the commons, which is shared amongst all of society. When all rational, self-interested men act in this same manner it leads to what is called “the tragedy of the commons”—or the destruction of the commons for all. Any appeal to conscience to act in the collective interest, that is preserve the commons, leaves a rational, self-interested man in a double-bind: either ignore the collective interest and be “condemned…for not acting like a responsible citizen” or act in the collective interest and be labeled a “simpleton” by one’s peers (Hardin 1968). Hardin proposes that certain social issues that exemplify this tragedy— he uses overpopulation as an example—do not have any purely technical solutions, solutions that depend only on a change in scientific technique. Instead, they require non-technical ones, too. These non-technical solutions are a change in human values and morality and will allow for society to enter into mutually coercive agreements, such as laws and regulations, that do act in the collective interest to conserve the commons.

By Hardin’s definition, the supply of Chinook salmon act as the “commons” that have gradually been depleted. For hundreds of years the salmon have served “as a powerful cultural and social symbol for tribal and non-tribal people in the Pacific Northwest” (Cleary 2007). It is estimated that pre-commercialization, the Chinook salmon runs in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Rivers harvested by Native American peoples exceeded 8.5 million pounds annually (Yoshiyama et al. 1998). For the technology available and the size of the population, this was a sustainable annual catch that did not rely on methods that caused adverse harm to the environment. The Gold Rush brought an influx of newcomers to the Western and Northwestern states and provided an environment for the rational, self-interested man of Hardin’s argument to capitalize on the seemingly endless supply of salmon. The peak of the commercial salmon trade from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River runs occurred in the 1880s when more than 10 million pounds of salmon were caught annually (Yoshiyama et al. 1998).

Canneries were established along the Pacific Coast to ensure that as much fish as possible was harvested and shipped around the globe—greatly increasing the population size that demanded Chinook salmon. However, by 1891 the annual harvest had dropped to a fraction of its peak, and the majority of canneries shuttered before the turn of the century (Yoshiyama et al. 1998). Chinook salmon catches have continued to fluctuate year-to-year in the past century. Currently, the Endangered Species Act lists two Chinook salmon populations as endangered and seven as threatened. A particularly notable collapse occurred in 2008 which the National Marine Fisheries Service declared the “largest collapse of salmon stock in 40 years” (Barringer 2008). The commercial salmon fisheries acted as Hardin predicted in his essay, whereby the rational, self-interested men depended on what they falsely believed to be the “inexhaustible resources of the oceans” (Hardin 1968).

In addition to overfishing, the Chinook salmon population is threatened by pollution and habitat loss. Chinook salmon spawn in rivers and estuaries, then travel out to the Pacific Ocean to mature. Therefore, if the journey from estuary or hatchery to ocean is impeded by any man-made structure, the salmon cannot fully grow and reproduce. Dams and water diversion schemes are methods used to manage farmland irrigation and provide hydroelectric power, both of which interfere with the salmon’s natural migration. Secondly, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are a classification of synthetic chemicals that have historically been used in manufacturing, primarily due to their longevity and wide application.

Recently, they have been used by researchers as benchmarks of contamination of marine ecosystems. Chinook salmon that spend a significant amount of their time near urban or agricultural centers have higher tissue and stomach PCB levels than salmon hatched in undeveloped estuaries (Johnson et al. 2007). The levels of PCB contamination in salmon can also be traced through the food chain to killer whales. Killer whales consume more than 500 pounds of salmon per day, and the levels of PCB in their tissues is beyond what has been proven to cause immune system damage in other marine species (Cone 2009). Humans fish and consume Chinook salmon from the same populations as these killer whales. While a complete understanding of the effects of PCBs on the human body has yet to be established, The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a branch of the Center for Disease Control, lists PCBs as likely carcinogenic substances. Both depletion and contamination of the Chinook salmon runs can be linked either directly or indirectly to actions of self-interested individuals or companies disregarding the collective interest because they lack any incentive to alter their cost-benefit analysis.

The steady destruction of the Chinook salmon runs is an issue that falls under Hardin’s classification of having no purely technical solution. Attempts by modern commercial fisheries to improve their models to yield more salmon each year will necessarily fail as improving that technology will only make it easier to further exploit the commons. Current non-technical solutions, however, have also proved to be ineffective.

The importance of the salmon runs to the economy of the Pacific Northwest was realized early in the state’s histories, and preliminary fishing regulations and protection laws were enacted before the start of the 20th century (Yoshiyama et al. 1998). The passage of laws and regulations such as these is what Hardin describes in his essay as an example of mutual coercion. By an understanding of the need to preserve a commons, rational, self-motivated individuals willingly enter into an agreement that requires them by law to work in the collective interest, and therefore avoid the double-bind discussed earlier. However, the continued fluctuation of Chinook salmon runs during the last century shows how ineffective the laws were, partially because of how narrowly they attempted to address the issue. While regulations to protect the salmon runs were in place, numerous dams were constructed throughout the region and communities were permitted to drain increasing amounts of water from the sources the salmon rely on (Yoshiyama et al. 1998). Additionally, although commercial Chinook salmon fishing is under federal restrictions, the addition of the salmon’s predators to the Endangered Species Act—namely killer whales—has introduced a unique competition between human predators and other marine predators. The net removal of Chinook salmon from the environment has actually increased in the past 40 years because of the growing number of killer whales, despite an effort to rehabilitate the salmon population (Chasco et al. 2017). While a solution to the Chinook salmon depletion will depend on both technical and non-technical solutions, they will need to be far more aggressive than current efforts.

To allow the Chinook salmon population to interact with its ecosystem naturally, society will need to truly commit to cleaning up the pollutants throughout their environment and shift to accepting and enjoying farmed and genetically modified salmon species. An argument that has long been purported by many vegans, is simply stop eating salmon. This, however, is an appeal to consciousness, which Hardin points out leads to guilt, which never accomplishes the desired goal (Hardin 1968). Veganism is also not a realistically enforceable solution, which is a criterion of mutually agreed upon coercion. Therefore, to continue including salmon in our diet while continuing to support the wild species that depend on Chinook salmon, I propose we will need to separate populations of salmon. One for human consumption, and another for the natural environment. This avoids the competition between humans and the salmon’s other predators, say killer whales or pinnipeds, which would never resolve itself in the collective interest—that is, preserving the runs for all.

The technical aspect of the solution to the depletion of Chinook salmon requires two branches: increase the efficiency of environmental clean-up procedures and work to perfect a genetically modified salmon species that is safe and easily farmable. Widespread efforts to improve salmon habitat have begun, but the pollution of the Earth’s waterways continues to be a major concern (Chasco et al. 2017). Further restrictions or financial incentives to ensure clean water will not only improve the health of the salmon, but also of the endangered species that depend on the salmon as a food source. Secondly, and more specifically, improving techniques for fish farming and utilizing genetic modifications to maximize the salmon product could decrease human dependance on wild salmon populations. Current environmental concern about fish farming comes from the unknown and possibly catastrophic ramifications of a farmed fish escaping captivity and breeding in the wild (Walsh 2011). This concern extends even more so to genetically modified salmon populations.

There are unknown risks associated with continuing to pursue fish farming of genetically modified salmon species, which is why technological advancements would be instrumental to this solution. AquaBounty is a company based in Massachusetts which has spent nearly two decades developing a version of Atlantic salmon that uses a gene from Chinook salmon to speed up the time to maturity, meaning fewer resources are needed to farm these particular fish (Walsh 2011). The company says they ensure none of their fish are at risk of escapement by raising them in completely enclosed tanks, which has the added benefit of preventing the spread of parasites, common at traditional fish farms, to the wild salmon population (Waltz 2017). Similar research could be done to develop the most commercially viable Chinook salmon, raised entirely in fish farms, by altering certain genes within the species or transplanting genes from others. Improving Chinook salmon farming to be a cleaner and faster process will allow the industry to grow with increasing demand, without increasing negative effects on the environment. The applications of genetic engineering are still not fully explored, but advancement in this field within the fishery industry could lead to cheaper and equally nutritious sources of protein for an ever-expanding population.

Education and a shift in society’s perception of the fishing industry are instrumental to the survival of the Chinook salmon runs, as what Hardin describes as non-technical solutions. The fish farming industry is already a disruptive issue for many Americans. According to Nell Halse, a spokesperson for the fish farming company Cooke Aquaculture, “I can’t see an [aquaculture company] that would go out and hurt the market by taking on that contentious issue [transgenic species]” (Walsh 2011). Interestingly, in this particular case, government legislation is ahead of public opinion with regards to genetically modified food sources. As of 2016, the Food & Drug Administration approved AquaBounty salmon safe for human consumption (Waltz 2017), and in 2019 permitted the fish to be imported and raised in US-based fisheries. More research done into genetically engineered foods will lead to a public more informed about the benefits of this new technology, and hopefully steer them towards accepting a more sustainable source of Chinook salmon.

The historic Chinook Salmon runs have for years been threatened by over-fishing and pollution and destruction of their habitat. Garett Hardin’s argument within The Tragedy of the Commons provides a framework with which to analyze this environmental issue. Existing non-technical solutions have been ineffectual as they have not widely convinced the rational, self-interested individual to act in accordance with the common good. Further exploration of the possibilities of genetic engineering could provide a technological approach to this problem, by differentiating populations of Chinook salmon for human consumption and for the natural environment. This will require a huge shift in public opinion and trust in a new technology which has historically been viewed with disgust and at times as a threat. Hardin acknowledges the need for education to fully integrate policies that rely on mutual coercion to prolong the health of a commons we all heavily rely on.

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The Chinook Salmon Runs in the Pacific Northwest. (2021, Mar 23). Retrieved November 28, 2022 , from

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