Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Endangered fish vs. farms

The full story has been written up elsewhere, but there's a nice little piece in the LA Times today about a tiny, endangered fish that lives near Sacramento, California. To protect the two-inch long fish, 25 million people and 2 million acres of farmland have had their water supplies reduced. Fox News, as you can imagine, is apoplectic. And indeed, it seems like they might actually have reason to be. While species are important, aren't 25 million people and 2 million acres of farmland more important than a few dozen minnows?

Fish scientist Peter Moyle, expert on the delta smelt, looks at it differently. "If the delta smelt goes away, it's not going to solve the problem." Chinook salmon also need the delta, and protecting it for delta smelt also means protecting it for salmon as well. The bottom line is that the smelt have become the flashpoint for a larger issue: there are too many demands on California's water resources. We're going to have to deal with them sooner or later- why not address them before we lose the smelt? A lot of times tradeoffs are deeper and more complex, involving more issues than we initially suspect, particularly when it comes to ecosystems. Still, we need to try to figure out how to weigh the competing concerns- and that's why we need economists!

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