Atlantic Salmon Placed on Endangered Species Listby Marc Kaufman, Staff Writer
Washington Post, November 14, 2000
Federal agencies yesterday took the unusual step of listing the once-abundant Atlantic salmon as an endangered species, after concluding that the number of wild salmon had declined below minimum levels for survival in the only U.S. rivers where they still spawn.
"Without protection," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, "chances are this population will die out completely."
The listing comes after years of controversy and despite strong political opposition from most elected officials in Maine, the only state along the eastern seaboard that has rivers where wild salmon return. They fear that the new protections that come with the listing will destroy the $65 million salmon industry that has grown along the Maine coast in the past 15 years.
"I am profoundly disappointed--but certainly not surprised--by today's announcement," said Maine Gov. Angus King (I). He said the federal government has been on "a single-minded mission to list the salmon regardless of objective reasoning."
King has supported scientists who question whether a distinct population of wild salmon even exists in Maine rivers, which have been stocked with salmon from different rivers for decades. Aides said yesterday that King was considering a legal challenge to the listing.
In making the decision, federal agencies determined that wild Maine salmon found in eight rivers make up a "distinct population segment" that deserved protection under federal law.
The decline of the Atlantic salmon started decades ago as dams and other development along spawning rivers made breeding impossible. But federal authorities also concluded that the 6 million salmon farmed in sea pens along the Maine coast pose a threat to the mere hundreds of wild salmon returning to nearby rivers. The listing is believed to be the first of a species that is also being farmed in large numbers.
In particular, federal officials concluded that some farmed fish are escaping from the sea pens and are both competing--and possibly breeding--with the wild salmon. Interbreeding between wild salmon and farmed salmon is believed to be harmful to the wild salmon, whose legendary drive to return to the rivers of their birth is at least partly based on their genetic makeup.
"We are looking for a change in the way the aquaculture industry does business," said Paul Nickerson, chief of the Northeast regional endangered species division of the Fish and Wildlife Service. In particular, the federal agencies want the industry to phase out the use of its European salmon hybrids, to provide better containment and to ban all genetically modified salmon for now.
Des FitzGerald, general manager of Atlantic Salmon of Maine, said that fear of the listing already has depressed his industry for two years, and that yesterday's announcement could put companies out of business.
"This is a very competitive international business, and we are already latecomers into it," he said. "All the new regulations have to hurt us. But even worse, we don't think salmon farms have anything to do with the fact wild salmon are not returning here. Hobbling us won't bring a single wild salmon back to the rivers."
William Brown, science adviser to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, applauded the decision, saying it will give federal agencies much more leverage in negotiations with industries that affect wild salmon. He also rejected criticisms that Atlantic salmon have been so decimated along the Maine coast because of habitat destruction and overfishing that protecting the last stragglers makes little sense.
"All the time we hear that animals proposed for endangered species status are too abundant to list, and that it should be only used for animals on the brink of extinction," he said. "Well, here these fish are at that point, but some people are saying there's no reason to try to save them because they're already too far gone."
Endangered species listings are uncommon for Atlantic fish and mammals. Federal officials said that only a handful of whales, sea turtles and sturgeon have been listed since the designation was established in 1972. The last species listed that is specific to the Northeast region was the bog turtle, which was listed in 1997.
After a listing is made, federal authorities must devise a plan to increase protection and restore habitat for the endangered species. Federal officials said yesterday they did not expect to have the new regulations in place for 30 months.
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