Feds Try to Sort Out Fish Policyby Eric Barker
Lewiston Tribune, May 29, 2004
Hatchery steelhead gain status but still don't equal wild ones
The number of salmon and steelhead populations protected under the Endangered Species Act will increase rather than decrease, based on a proposed policy that considers hatchery fish when determining the health of anadromous fish runs.
Federal officials unveiled a proposed policy Friday that says genetically similar hatchery fish will be considered when assessing the health of wild runs.
But that does not mean artificially produced fish will be counted as equals to wild fish, according to Bob Lohn, regional administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries division at Seattle.
"The fundamental foundation of salmon recovery rests upon naturally spawning populations and their habitat, and this policy tends to reinforce that," said Lohn. "This policy may not be used as a substitute for naturally spawning runs."
The policy is a response to a 2001 court ruling in Oregon, known as the Hogan decision. Federal judge Michael Hogan ruled the government is required to protect both hatchery coho salmon and wild coho salmon if it considers both groups to be part of the same population.
That ruling led officials at NOAA Fisheries to look at their hatchery policy and also to re-evaluate each of the 26 listed runs of Pacific salmon and steelhead.
Of the 26 wild salmon and steelhead runs listed as threatened or endangered, 23 have hatchery runs considered to be from the same population.
Under the old policy, the wild fish are protected and the hatchery fish are not. Under the new policy both hatchery and wild fish would be considered as part of the same population. If that population was at risk, it would be protected. If it was healthy, it would be removed from protection.
Lohn said wild and hatchery fish will still be counted separately, even if they are considered part of the same population.
"We will still take into account how many are natural spawners and how many are artificially produced."
Based on the review and new policy, none of the runs will be removed from federal protection and one run will be added.
Lower Columbia coho will be listed as threatened. Oregon coastal coho, which were removed from federal protection following the Hogan decision, have to be returned to the list.
Many of the listed runs have increased in number since they were brought under the umbrella of federal protection. Lohn said improved ocean conditions coupled with efforts to fix habitat have lead to increases in most of the runs.
"That doesn't mean problem solved," said Lohn. "It does mean the restoration is paying off and it does mean there is real hope for the recovery of these salmon runs."
The policy also says hatcheries can play a beneficial role in salmon recovery if they are properly managed. Hatcheries can be used to bolster wild runs by producing fish that spawn in the wild.
Hatcheries also can preserve runs, like Snake River sockeye, that are on the brink of extinction.
If hatcheries are managed improperly they can be part of the problem, he said. Some hatcheries can spread disease to wild runs, water down wild genetics or produce fish that compete with wild fish for food and space.
According to Lohn, the policy is not expected to reduce harvest opportunity on abundant hatchery runs.
Despite the reassurances from Lohn, salmon recovery advocates panned the proposed policy, fearing it means wild and hatchery fish will be considered as equals.
Pat Ford of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition at Boise thinks the new policy will be combined with a new salmon recovery plan, due to be released this summer, and combined, the two will lower the salmon recovery bar.
"I think this policy has a deep potential for mischievous use in an anti-salmon administration."
People on the opposite end of the salmon recovery spectrum were equally suspicious of the proposed policy.
Russ Brooks, the attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, which won the case that caused the new hatchery policy, thinks the policy does not go far enough. He believes the government is required to treat wild and hatchery fish as equals and therefore delist several of the populations.
He thinks a policy that does not remove any salmon or steelhead runs from federal protection was made with an eye toward November's presidential election.
"Bush knows he can sorely afford to lose Washington and Oregon. The majority of people in Washington and Oregon are Democrats or swing voters and he doesn't want to appear soft on environmental issues."
If the proposed policy is adopted, Brooks vowed to challenge it in court.
"I will be happy to garnish additional attorney fees and bring Bob Lohn to his knees again and get another federal court decision instructing them as to what the law says."
The proposed policy is open to public comment for the next 90 days. It can be viewed at www.nwr.noaa.gov
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