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Audience Questions Wild Fish Science

by Eric Barker
Lewiston Tribune, October 1, 2004

People who attended a public hearing on salmon and steelhead protection policies Thursday questioned the logic and science behind a proposal to include hatchery fish in protected populations of wild fish.

They also criticized a proposal to include rainbow trout in protected populations of steelhead trout.

John Claassen of Clarkston doesn't believe officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have sufficient understanding of the genetic differences between wild and hatchery fish to pursue the policy.

"We need to be cautious in playing around and defining gene pools." he said.

Others were more blunt.

"I'm not sure we know what the hell we are doing," said Ray Collard, a fisherman from Pocatello, who is in the area steelhead fishing.

The comments were made during a presentation by Rob Jones of NOAA Fisheries. Jones and several other representatives from the agency were in Lewiston to present information on the agency's new hatchery policy and its reassessment of Endangered Species Act protection for 26 salmon and steelhead populations on the West Coast, including Snake River salmon and steelhead. The officials also recorded public comments at the meeting.

The new policy was announced in May and stems from a federal court decision in Oregon that found fault with the way the agency listed coho salmon there. Judge Michael Hogan ruled the agency erred when it included both hatchery and wild coho in the same population, known as an evolutionary significant unit, but protected only the wild fish. Hogan said all of the population must be protected or none of it.

After analyzing his decision, the agency concluded it needed to reassess all of its salmon and steelhead listings on the West Coast because most were prepared in the same way as the one Hogan found illegal.

"We agreed with the judge's decision and we recognized this situation occurred coast-wide," said Jones.

The agency will add one run of salmon to the list of threatened species and move one run of steelhead from endangered to threatened.

The new policy includes hatchery fish in protected populations of salmon and steelhead. For example, if adopted, steelhead from Dworshak National Fish Hatchery at Ahasahka would be considered a threatened species because they are genetically similar to wild steelhead in the Clearwater River.

But the policy also says rainbow trout in places like the Clearwater River drainage, and even those above Dworshak Dam, are similar enough to wild steelhead to be included as part of the threatened population.

"It is clear to us where rainbow trout and steelhead coexist they share a common gene pool," said Jones.

In fact, he said rainbow trout can produce offspring that migrate to the ocean and return years later as much larger steelhead. But Jones said listing rainbow trout with protected steelhead will not affect angling, and listing hatchery steelhead as a threatened species would not prevent states like Idaho from continuing to hold fishing seasons on them.

"We do not expect any regulations to change with respect to rainbow trout fisheries," said Jones.

Angler Collard asked if adding rainbow trout and hatchery steelhead to the populations of threatened wild steelhead would cause them to be delisted simply by bolstering their numbers. Jones said the answer is no and assured the audience salmon and steelhead need healthy wild populations to be considered recovered.

"If we have 1,000 hatchery fish and one natural fish you have a problem," said Jones. "It is the same with resident and anadromous fish."

But some, like Jeff Holmes, hunting and fishing coordinator for the Sierra Club at Spokane, said the policy is laying groundwork to remove salmon and steelhead from federal protection.

Holmes asked Jones to what extent rainbow trout contribute to steelhead runs. Jones cited studies that suggest as many as 10 percent of the steelhead in Oregon's Hood River are the offspring of rainbow trout. But he also said the studies linking rainbow trout and steelhead populations are few and need more study.

"It seems very interesting," said Holmes. "But not very conclusive."

Eric Barker
Audience Questions Wild Fish Science
Lewiston Tribune, October 1, 2004

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