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Commentaries and editorials

An Appeal for Wild Salmon

by Editors
The Oregonian, November 8, 2001

If the federal government lets stand a judge's ruling that blurs critical distinctions between hatchery and wild salmon, it will undermine the basis of West Coast salmon restoration.

Tomorrow is the deadline for the National Marine Fisheries Service to appeal the Sept. 12 ruling by U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan that stripped federal protections from coastal coho salmon in Oregon.

There's risk in taking the case to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals -- a defeat would leave Hogan's ruling as legal precedent throughout the range of all Pacific salmon, rather than a matter affecting only Oregon coastal coho. Yet property-rights groups opposed to restoring rivers already are filing lawsuits against salmon recovery on other Western rivers based on Hogan's legal reasoning. The fisheries service should stand up to them now.

Hogan ruled that the fisheries service should have taken into account hatchery-born fish when it listed wild Oregon coastal coho salmon as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. The judge said it was arbitrary for the fisheries service to recognize that hatchery and wild coho were part of the same "evolutionary significant unit" of fish, but fail to count or extend endangered species protections to hatchery fish.

It's a narrow ruling, but already it's being eagerly exploited by those seeking to roll back federal efforts to protect rivers and streams and restore wild fish runs. We are not wild-fish purists -- well-run hatcheries are important tools in providing salmon runs -- but we're worried about where Hogan's ruling will lead.

If there's no distinction between hatchery and wild fish, why worry about timber sales that bury spawning gravel in silt, why bother to maintain instream flows, why keep new developments from crowding salmon rivers and streams? As Brian Gorman, a spokesman for NMFS said, ". . . we could literally have our rivers lined with concrete, and as long as the hatcheries produce fish, it doesn't matter how many die along the way."

Hogan's ruling has renewed debate about hatchery and wild fish, about whether there are significant genetic differences, whether they interbreed and whether it's wrong to club excess hatchery fish to death. Those are all interesting arguments, but they miss the main point: The No.1 priority of salmon recovery must be restoring river health and the natural reproduction of fish.

To do otherwise is to ignore the lessons of the past century, as one salmon run after another plunged because of habitat loss to dams, pollution and urban development. Hatcheries have kept salmon runs and fisheries alive, but now we spend tens of millions of dollars raising fish in concrete tanks next to rivers where they could reproduce naturally.

Congress approved the Endangered Species Act to protect creatures and plants and the habitat they need to naturally reproduce, not to save animals in zoos or build more fish hatcheries. The National Marine Fisheries Service must not shrink from its duty to restore wild salmon runs in Oregon and throughout the West.

An Appeal for Wild Salmon
The Oregonian, November 8, 2001

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