CORVALLIS, Ore. - In a world in which instability, whether driven by people or nature, seems to be increasing, “resilience” is emerging as a key concept – a desirable characteristic of both natural and human systems and communities. Scientists define resilience as the ability to tolerate or recover from disturbance.

In the Pacific Northwest, researchers who specialize in salmon have begun to examine the problem of long-term salmon persistence in the region through the lens of resilience. They say that the traditional focus on maintaining production and harvest – which has long dominated discussion of salmon – has diverted attention from the more fundamental concern about the fish’s ability to withstand disturbances and persist.

According to Dan Bottom, a salmon biologist with NOAA Fisheries and a courtesy professor at Oregon State University, “the problem with the way we've managed fisheries in the past is we've tried to force a dynamic system into a static condition that actually, in the long run, makes the system much more unstable.”

“The natural world has adapted to disturbance,” said Bottom, “so, ironically, when you try to stabilize it, for example through raising fish in a hatchery, you make it less stable.”

In the case of hatchery-raised salmon, produced to maintain a stable population size, one consequence is that many of these fish “are not capable of living outside that narrow range of tolerances” in which they were produced in the hatchery.

“Fish raised to a uniform size all released at the same time are likely to be less flexible to the vagaries of nature,” said Bottom. The drive to stabilize populations through artificial production backfires, and to the extent that hatchery production replaces natural re-seeding of salmon habitat in rivers and streams, that population of salmon becomes less resilient to natural disturbances.

“We try to manage natural resources so we can have things nice and predictable,” said Court Smith, an OSU anthropologist who has studied how communities adapt to change. “But we're now facing tremendous changes, in terms of climate, globalization, and other human impacts, so today there are a lot of very dynamic changes going on to which humans have to be really skillful in adapting, and in assisting other organisms, such as salmon, to adapt.”

The Oregon Sea Grant program at OSU has been encouraging development of the resilience concept as it provides another approach to the problem of salmon decline and restoration in the Northwest, said Robert Malouf, program director. Earlier this year, Sea Grant sponsored a conference called Pathways to Resilience that involved more than 125 salmon researchers, social scientists, managers, and policy makers.

Resilience as a goal of salmon management was described by many at the conference as an idea whose time has come. The idea has been gaining currency in both the biological and social sciences since the 1970s, but the approach seems increasingly relevant as both biological and social systems come under stress.

In his keynote address, former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber supported such new thinking.

Kitzhaber observed: “Albert Einstein once said ‘You should not use an old map to explore a new world.’ And he was right, because each new generation faces a new world with new challenges--challenges that cannot be met by clinging to the past but only by imagining a different world and a different set of tools through which to build it.”

A theme sounded by many conference speakers was that the old approach to managing salmon has had the unintended effect of leaving both the fish and the human communities dependent on them less resilient.

“Traditional harvest management of salmon has focused on taking maximum yields of the dominant life-history types, while conservation has come to focus on so-called ‘critical habitats’ of those same population components,” noted Michael Healey of the University of British Columbia. “This management approach has narrowed significantly the spectrum of life history traits of salmon, and thereby reduced the resilience of salmon.”

“My definition for resilience would be survival,” said Irene Martin of Ilwaco, Wash., an adviser to the board of Salmon for All, a commercial fishing group. “How do families in an occupational group survive from one generation to the next?

“In the 1990s, when the Endangered Species Act listings of salmon on the Columbia River caused fishing seasons to be curtailed,” she noted, “some commercial fishermen invested in other permits, in Alaska – crab permits, shrimp permits, a variety of other permits. So they developed, basically, portfolios of permits in order to survive in their occupation.”

OSU anthropologist Smith said that the concept of resilience has applications far beyond salmon and fishing. “We should all be interested in resilience, because it adds a little different twist to the way we think about things. We have a human system interacting with a biocomplex system; if humans are going to survive over a long period of time, we need to be able to adapt to change and disturbance, rather than trying to make everything stable, as we have with our current policies.”

Highlights of the resilience conference, including Kitzhaber’s speech and video interviews with Bottom, Smith, Martin, Healey, and others, are now online at the Sea Grant program’s website:

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Dan Bottom,