Salmon Plan may Add Artificial Twist
by Joe Rojas-Burke
A proposal to count hatchery fish has critics worried
about a wider shift in the arithmetic of survival
In the effort to rebuild the Northwest's iconic salmon runs, the Bush administration has outlined a plan in which artificially produced fish, turned out by the hundreds of millions each year, could help decide whether salmon require continued federal protection.
This is a tectonic shift in the nation's approach to preventing wildlife from going extinct -- and may have broad implications for the future of the Endangered Species Act.
The proposal specifically addresses only Pacific salmon. But in making it, the Bush administration raises wider questions about standards for other endangered species. If hatchery fish can count toward reducing extinction risk, what about zoo populations? What combination of genes and rearing does it take to make an artificially produced animal the same as its wild kin? What, finally, does it mean to be wild or natural?
As copies of the draft policy spread by fax machine and e-mail in recent days, some scientists and environmental advocates said the plan could set a clear precedent allowing federal authorities to declare a wildlife population recovered even if its survival depends in part on continued artificial production.
"It's like saying that endangered species don't require protection if there are sufficient numbers in zoos or botanical gardens," said Paul Ehrlich, a professor of biology at Stanford University and president of the Center for Conservation Biology. Ehrlich said the precedent could lead the government to revoke endangered or threatened status from other species maintained by captive breeding efforts.
Under the Endangered Species Act, the federal government weighs extinction risk based on whether a species can survive in its natural environment.
"What this policy does is take the species out of its natural environment and ask, 'How many can we produce?' " said Patti Goldman, a Seattle attorney with the environmental law firm Earthjustice, which is involved in several lawsuits challenging the government's handling of salmon and other imperiled species.
But federal officials have been quick to say critics are reading too much into the one-page outline of the new policy, which was leaked to reporters. The full proposal won't be released until at least the end of May.
"I would encourage people to wait until the policy comes out before speculating further," said Bob Lohn, regional administrator of the fisheries service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The White House complies, deferring all comment to Lohn.
Explaining the policy two weeks ago, Lohn told The Oregonian, "Properly run, hatcheries can become a kind of extension of natural habitat." But in a follow-up interview, he said nothing in the draft policy diminishes the importance of protecting and restoring river and stream habitat for naturally spawning salmon. Moreover, he said, large numbers of hatchery fish in no way guarantee the safety of a salmon run.
"I would expect the final policy to make those points even more clearly," he said.
Lohn declined to say whether any salmon stocks would lose federal protection while still dependent on hatchery production. But Lohn told agency scientists and staff in an internal memo last week that "most, if not all, of the listings were not likely to be changed by application of the draft hatchery policy." That opinion, according to the memo, is based on trial applications of the new policy at an April workshop that included scientists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
A spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality this week said the Bush administration would give the fisheries service time to finish writing the policy before commenting.
Lohn emphasized that a federal judge ordered his agency to revise its hatchery policy. In 2001, U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan of Eugene said the agency erred when it excluded several hatchery stocks from federal protections given to the wild population of Oregon coast coho salmon.
With that ruling in force, there is no way for the government to avoid considering hatchery salmon, said Daniel Diggs, assistant regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The service is responsible for most endangered species other than salmon and is providing technical advice to NOAA on the new hatchery policy.
"The big remaining question," Diggs said, "is what is the right balance between hatchery and wild fish?"
The hatchery versus wild distinction has long vexed fisheries managers and scientists.
Some biologists say that hatchery salmon can never be considered equivalent replacements for their wild kin. What the federal government is proposing, they say, amounts to a wholesale replacement of diverse, wild nature with something less, something shaped more by human actions.
"It's like saying wolves and Chihuahuas are the same," said Ransom Myers, a prominent fishery biologist and professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Biologists widely agree that in hatcheries, as in zoos, animals inevitably become less adapted to survival in the wild. Hatchery salmon typically live in captivity for two to 18 months before their release and migration to spend two to five years at sea. But some biologist say even the first generation offspring of wild fish reared in a hatchery can develop domesticated habits and traits.
Impacts of hatchery fish
Scientists say large numbers of hatchery fish can compete with wild-spawned salmon for limited food and habitat. Hatchery fish also stray onto spawning grounds and mate with wild fish, potentially undermining the genetic diversity that allows salmon populations to adapt and survive in a changing environment.
But northwest tribes, which have treaty rights to Columbia River Basin salmon and support their own wildlife restoration programs and hatcheries, insist that hatchery salmon are not inferior to wild.
In the Columbia and Snake rivers, hatcheries release about 200 million salmon and steelhead each year. By the mid-1990s, hatchery fish accounted for more than 80 percent of salmon returning to the Columbia River Basin.
Many of the hatcheries remain devoted primarily to producing a catch for commercial fisheries. But some hatchery stocks preserve all that is left of the genetic heritage of runs that were obliterated by the building of dams, such as the Hell's Canyon complex, with no fish ladders.
Some experts say that blanket objections to large-scale artificial production are more ideological than scientific.
"In the Columbia River Basin, where we have very few self-sustaining salmon populations, without immediate action, a great majority will disappear," said Andre Talbot, a senior scientist with the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, which coordinates salmon fisheries on behalf of four Northwest tribes.
"We feel that given the tremendous benefits we can have in increasing the abundance and distribution of salmon and maintaining diversity, that the benefits far outweigh the risks."
Critics say that if the salmon policy becomes official, they see nothing to stop the government from trying to apply it more broadly.
"It becomes a vehicle that could be extended to other species," said Peter Kareiva, a conservation biologist with the Nature Conservancy and former director of conservation biology for NOAA's Northwest Fishery Science Center in Seattle.
Salmon, unlike most endangered species, already have a production infrastructure. It includes hundreds of hatcheries and dedicated funding from the profits of hydroelectric dams, much of it prescribed by legislation or treaty obligations with Native American tribes.
Hatcheries advocates, however, say it is misleading to compare hatchery salmon to zoo animals. "These hatchery fish don't exist in some kind of sterile environment. They're out there in the river, they are avoiding predators, they are searching for food out in the ocean right among the naturally spawning fish," said Russ Brooks, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation. The California-based group brought the lawsuit that forced the government to reconsider the role of hatchery salmon.
"How wild do they have to be?" Brooks asked.
The scientific and legal communities await the federal government's plan eagerly. Its final form will not only direct agencies how to aid depleted runs of salmon but also make clearer the full range of possible consequences if hatcheries should be viewed as a part of natural habitat.
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