Salmon, People and Place: A Biologist’s Search for Salmon Recovery

Oregon State Press, 2013

by Jim Lichatowich



After visiting my nearby fish hatchery recently, I decided to re-read Jim Lichatowich’s 2013 book. Having read it five years ago when it first came out, I recalled that it brought the issue of hatcheries, wild fish and salmon recovery into sharp focus. I needed to be reminded of its message. It is written by someone with over 40 years smack dab in the middle of things, a man with open eyes and open mind, not beholden to any particular interest group or management ideology. I wanted to read it again, not to discount the approach and value of hatcheries in salmon recovery and management, but to better understand how this one technology should fit in into a broader, effective salmon management and recovery effort. Jim’s book again helped me see the bigger picture.


Lichatowich’s main thesis is that many of our basic beliefs about salmon management and recovery are based on myths, false assumptions, old patterns of doing things, and often wishful thinking. The first part of the two part book is called “Icebergs, Myths and Stories”. He discusses sense of place, as perceived by humans and by salmon. This is a central point; scientists have learned that salmon’s biological diversity cannot easily be relocated or taken out of the place that they have lived in for millennia. Healthy salmon populations depend on healthy watersheds. This is where hatcheries come in. We have, over the past hundred years, ignored the importance of place, replacing it with a kind of factory where, at an industrial scale we create lots of fish, but ignore their connection to place. And, by any honest assessment, it has not worked. Like the underwater part of an iceberg, Lichatowich very carefully and systematically presents the reader with a way of seeing the underlying basis for the salmon problem.


Because of his experience at all levels of salmon management and in very different roles, first as a field biologist, then as a manager at various agencies and as an advisor on boards and advisory groups to State, Federal and tribal entities, his assessment of the administrative and institutional underpinnings of the problem are important. Administrators and scientists are committed to their work and to helping recover wild salmon populations, but they often are too close or too tied to their own agency or institutional “story” and assumptions to be able to consider real change. And, as Lichatowich points out, change is a common denominator in salmon management. While things go on as usual, scientific research, study groups and advisory councils continue to explore ways to change things, since the facts cannot be ignored. In spite of millions spent annually, of tens of millions of hatchery fish released every year, of scientists learning more and more, of new things tried to respond to a particular problem, wild salmon numbers are just a small fraction of what they once were, and we see fewer returns each year. It kind of reflects the old saying, “talk is cheap, change is expensive”. Actually talk is not cheap in this case, and the lack of change continues to be incredibly costly.


The second part of the book is called First Steps Towards Salmon Recovery. Everyone interested in saving wild salmon populations should read this. It presents nine actions which, according to Lichatowich, would respond to the issues and problems described in the first part of the book, and put wild salmon management and recovery on a more successful path. They are not radical, they do not depend on spending additional millions on new technologies and creating new agencies and entities to direct things. They are, in fact, pretty simple; things which essentially ask those in decision making positions and the rest of us as a society to shift our thinking and adjust how we spend money on wild salmon recovery and set priorities. The nine recommendations (each with a careful description of why they are important and what they would accomplish) are:



Getting people to change the way they see things, to let go of their long believed stories, to see the untruths behind myths, does not happen overnight. One book cannot do it. But it is a process, and one book can contribute to the discussion, and, help shift things into a different direction. With respect to wild salmon recovery, Lichatowich’s book brings a strong, experienced voice at the table, a voice which should be listened to and respected. He has earned this respect and authority. He is a wise elder. There was a time when we paid attention to them, when such a person sat in the circle of elders, helping a community make good decisions for all. Not such a bad idea.


The one thing that would make this book better would be to have enough interest to have a second, updated edition. As I was thinking this, I discovered Lichatowich’s website My prayers were answered. Here is a place where he continues to participate in and contribute to the discussion on restoring wild salmon populations to healthier levels. His most recent report, Wild Pacific Salmon: A Threatened Legacy, by Jim Lichatowich (Expanded in 2018 in collaboration with Rick Williams, Bill Bakke, Jim Meyers, David Bella, Bill McMillan, Jack Stanford, David Montgomery, Kurt Beardslee and Nick Gayeski) can be downloaded from his website. Click here to read a review.


 DLK, Nov. 2018