Jaeger WK, Scheuerell MD (2023) Return(s) on investment: Restoration spending in the Columbia River Basin and increased abundance of salmon and steelhead. PLoS ONE 18(7): e0289246. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0289246
The decline in salmon and steelhead populations in the Columbia River Basin has been well documented, as have the decades-long, $9 billion restoration spending efforts by federal and state agencies. These efforts are mainly tied to Endangered Species Act (ESA) mandates for recovery of wild, naturally-spawning threatened or endangered fish species. The impact of these efforts remains poorly understood; many observers, including the federal courts, have long been concerned by the lack of evidence of recovery. Most studies evaluating restoration efforts have examined individual projects for specific species, reaches, or life stages, which limits the ability to make broad inferences at the basin level. There is a need to ask: is there evidence of an overall increase in wild fish abundance associated with the totality of these recovery efforts? To that end, the current study estimates fixed-effects panel regression models of adult returns of four species. Results indicate that restoration spending combined with hatchery production are associated with substantial increases in returning adult fish. Evidence of benefits to wild fish alone, however, require indirect approaches given the commingling of restoration spending with spending on hatchery releases, the impacts of spending on hatchery fish survival, and the density dependence effects of hatchery releases. To accomplish this, the model’s predicted adult returns (both hatchery and wild fish) attributed to both spending and hatchery releases are compared to independent estimates of returning hatchery fish based on hatchery survival estimates (smolt-to-adult ratios). The comparison finds the model-predicted levels of adult returns due to spending and hatchery releases do not exceed the survival-rate based estimates for hatcheries alone, so that we are unable to reject the hypothesis of no benefits to wild fish from the restoration spending.