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Fish Agency to Review Salmon Runs

by Mike Lee, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, November 10, 2001

The National Marine Fisheries Service agreed Friday that its hatchery program is badly flawed and announced a sweeping review of 23 fish runs on the West Coast to determine if the runs still deserve federal protection.

In the dramatic policy shift, NMFS also declined to appeal a landmark ruling that invalidated Endangered Species Act protections for Oregon coastal coho because the agency had made improper distinctions between hatchery and wild fish.

"It's time to stop fighting and start fixing," said Bob Lohn, new regional administrator for NMFS.

The program rolled out Friday was one of the most anticipated salmon decisions in years. Federal agencies had received more than 1,800 calls and e-mails.

Instead of extending the court case, "We just felt like the best thing ... would be to focus our energies on conducting a comprehensive review of hatchery policies," said Bill Hogarth, assistant administrator of fisheries at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington, D.C.

It was a major victory for land and water rights advocates, many of whom long have questioned NMFS hatchery policies and the legitimacy of drastic federal fish protections.

"I can think of no action by NMFS to date that may do more to positively impact the Northwest's salmon recovery efforts," said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash. "NMFS' decision is balanced, level-headed and rejects the foolish and irresponsible view that hatcheries should have no role in recovering our salmon populations."

While promising to maintain current ESA protections during its hatchery review, NMFS created the possibility that species could be removed from ESA listings along with demands not to harm them. That has broad implications for Northwest logging, farming, water rights, water pollution, dam operation and power production.

"The inclusion of hatchery-spawned salmon will result in population levels for most runs that won't warrant listing under the ESA -- especially given that listed salmon populations are returning to Washington's rivers in record numbers," said Trent Matson, an analyst for the Building Industry Association of Washington.

In addition, the agency's mea culpa on hatchery policy is likely to inspire more lawsuits to force more species off the ESA list.

NMFS officials are eager to avoid that kind of scenario and pitched a "safe haven" program for watershed groups engaged in salmon recovery. The idea is to give such groups three to five years to pursue recovery without threat of penalties.

That may not be enough for organizations eager to repeal land and water restrictions imposed under ESA since 1991.

Those who try the court route won't necessarily find the same results as the Oregon coho case. For one thing, environmental groups did not join that court case on the assumption that NMFS would defend their interests.

"We won't stay on the sidelines and trust the government" next time, promised Patti Goldman, lawyer for Earthjustice in Seattle.

On Sept. 10, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Hogan sent the salmon world spinning when he invalidated ESA protections on Oregon coastal coho because NMFS had not accounted for hatchery coho when deciding to protect the wild run. That spawned at least five petitions to remove more than a dozen salmon runs from the ESA list.

Environmentalists criticized NMFS' decision not to appeal and promised to continue their efforts to challenge Hogan's ruling in the 9th Circuit Court. Already, said Goldman, several timber sales in Oregon that had been stopped by ESA moved forward quickly after Hogan's ruling and threaten salmon habitat.

But Goldman was pleased with the decision to examine hatchery policies. "It makes sense for them to say we are going to redo this through a public rule-making process," she said.

She was not alone. Virtually everyone welcomed the review of hatcheries, which remain one of the soft spots in regional salmon recovery policy. There are numerous highly technical questions about hatchery fish: Do they help or hinder wild runs, how different are they from wild stocks, what hatchery techniques work best and what kind of protection do hatchery fish deserve?

"Information on these stocks is mixed at best," Lohn said. "There is no uniform standard."

Significantly, reviews will include numbers from the large salmon runs of the last two years.

Agency officials repeated several times during a Friday news conference their intention to make fish recovery a more collaborative process in which NMFS sets broad guidelines and gives regional groups money and time to complete them without threat of penalties.

"We are seeing a major shift in emphasis for NMFS both at the staff level and the policy level within the region," said Lohn, putting the Bush administration's policy stamp on Northwest salmon strategies for the first time.

While maintaining that the administration was not backing away from ESA protections, federal officials made it clear they want state and local agencies to take a more active role. The federal officials also praised the "strong leadership" of Northwest governors and promised a comprehensive outreach effort as they build a new plan.

"We are going to aggressively support ... local initiatives," Lohn said. "A plan that is strictly top-down is beyond our reach technically and impractical to implement. ... We are trying to get there quicker with a strong infusion of local effort."

That emphasis seems to come from Lohn's recent appointment as the fish and wildlife program director for the Northwest Power Planning Council, a group composed of representatives from each Northwest state.

Larry Cassidy, power council chairman, and Washington Gov. Gary Locke were among many who welcomed NMFS' approach to state and local efforts.

However, Jeff Curtis at Trout Unlimited in Portland was highly skeptical. "We are disheartened to see NMFS apparently sweeping its chief responsibility of protecting listed stocks under the vaguely defined rug of 'local recovery efforts,' " he said.

Mike Lee
Fish Agency to Review Salmon Runs
Tri-City Herald, November 10, 2001

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