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Conservationists Petition to Bolster Fish Protections

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, April 26, 2002

Conservation groups Thursday asked the U.S. government to redefine its endangered species listings for 14 West Coast runs of salmon in an effort to make those protections better withstand legal attack.

The request, in the form of a petition by 17 conservation groups, seeks to lift the runs of wild fish and end uncertainty brought by a September legal ruling that the National Marine Fisheries Service had improperly protected wild but not hatchery-born salmon.

In that ruling, U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan of Eugene stripped Oregon coastal coho of federal protection and said the fisheries service had "arbitrarily and capriciously" distinguished between wild and hatchery salmon.

Coastal coho are again protected at least temporarily while the Ninth U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals considers an appeal. But the fisheries service has launched a comprehensive review of federal hatchery policy and is weighing whether to remove federal protections from 24 West Coast stocks of salmon and steelhead. The 14 cited in Thursday's petition are among those 24.

Hogan's ruling gave the fisheries service two fundamental choices: either protect all salmon and steelhead in a region including hatchery-born fish or no fish in the region should have federal protection because hatchery fish are numerous. The first option would upset anglers who target hatchery fish, the second would upset conservationists who want wild fish protected.

The conservation groups filing Thursday's petition offered the fisheries service another alternative: The agency should define hatchery and wild fish as separate varieties of salmon and then protect only the wild fish.

Thursday's petition would not give Endangered Species Act protection to any additional fish. But it would preserve existing listings, regardless of how the circuit court rules.

"We think our petition is a simple, appropriate and somewhat elegant way of dealing with the confusion caused by the Hogan decision," said Jeff Curtis, the western conservation director of Trout Unlimited, which with Oregon Trout was one of the two lead petitioners. "We believe that wild and hatchery fish really are different."

Thursday's petition was in direct response to petitions filed after Hogan's ruling by farmers, property rights advocates and others who asked the fisheries service to remove 15 West Coast stocks of salmon and steelhead from the endangered species list. The agency said it would accept 14 of those petitions when it announced that it would review its decision to list 24 West Coast stocks.

Supporters of Hogan's ruling derided the conservationists' petition. Russell Brooks, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, said the decision had shown the federal government had no legal or scientific basis for distinguishing between wild and hatchery salmon. "These people are refusing to recognize that hatchery and wild fish are the same," Brooks said. "For them to petition to have some federal bureaucrat wade into a river and pick and choose which fish is going to be protected and which fish can be thrown on the barbecue is the height of idiocy."

Most conservationists, though, say there is an enormous difference between hatchery-born and wild salmon, even though both fish spend their adult lives in the open ocean and normally can only be distinguished when hatchery fish have had adipose fins removed.

"Hatcheries select for hatchery-type fish that don't survive in nature as well as wild fish do," said Bill Bakke, the executive director of the Native Fish Society, one of the petitioners. "Hatchery fish can compete with wild fish, they can spread diseases to them, and interbreed with them and lower their survival."

Bakke and others called it essential that the fisheries service find a way to protect imperiled wild stocks even at a time when hatchery populations are booming. Without wild stocks to replenish hatchery populations, conservationists say, they will become less robust, and the West Coast could lose its hatchery salmon. Currently roughly 80 percent of salmon that return to the Columbia River each year are hatchery-born.

Tribes oppose the conservationist petition. Charles Hudson, a spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said the tribes want to work with the fisheries service on its case-by-case review of 24 listings. He said the tribes oppose moves to either remove all protections for salmon or retain federal protection for all wild fish.

"We think a sweeping delisting is opportunistic," Hudson said. "A move to list only wild fish is an equally poor reaction."

Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the fisheries service, said he could not yet comment on the petition because he had not yet seen it. The agency has 90 days from when it receives the petition to rule on whether it will consider it. If the agency rules in favor of considering the petition, it has 12 months to propose actions.

The agency's review of hatchery policy and its reconsideration of 24 listings decisions is scheduled to be completed this fall.

In addition to Trout Unlimited, Oregon Trout and the Native Fish Society, the groups petitioning Thursday include Oregon Council Federation of Flyfishers, Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman's Associations, Oregon Natural Resources Council, Save Our Wild Salmon, American Rivers, Audubon Society of Portland, National Wildlife Federation and Siskiyou Regional Education Project.

Jonathan Brinckman
Conservationists Petition to Bolster Fish Protections
The Oregonian, April 26, 2002

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