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Critics Call Fish Count a Whopper

by Elizabeth Shogren and Kenneth R. Weiss, Times Staff Writers
Los Angeles Times, April 30, 2004

A U.S. plan to include hatchery-raised salmon and trout
in protected-status lists seen as risk to species.

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration plans to count hatchery-raised fish - millions of which are released each year - when deciding whether specific populations of Pacific salmon and steelhead trout should continue to be listed as endangered or threatened species, officials said Thursday.

The status of the 26 distinct West Coast populations of salmon and steelhead trout now protected by the Endangered Species Act is being reevaluated, and at least eight could change as early as June, said Jim Lecky, inter-government program advisor for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The policy change, made in response to a 2001 court decision, was reported in the Washington Post on Thursday and confirmed by Bush administration officials later in the day.

Critics and supporters predicted that it could dramatically reduce efforts up and down the Pacific Coast to protect the fish, whose wild numbers have been decimated by dams, fishing, logging and development.

The policy shift was a victory for landowners and small businesses that successfully sued the government for excluding hatchery fish when determining how to protect coastal coho salmon in Oregon. Their reasoning, endorsed by a federal judge in Oregon, is that hatchery-raised fish are genetically similar to their wild cousins. Given that hatcheries release millions of juveniles into the same rivers, their argument went, if the government were only to count them it would find that salmon populations are so abundant that they no longer needed federal protection.

The Bush administration's new policy "makes very good common sense because we are spending billions of dollars every year to protect salmon from going extinct, when there are millions and millions of salmon up and down the West Coast from Seattle to San Diego," said Russ Brooks, a lawyer for the Pacific Legal Foundation, which is representing property owners and ranchers.

The government spends $700 million a year to protect endangered and threatened fish by supplementing their stocks with hatchery fish, improving dams and restoring habitat. It also requires states and private landowners to pitch in, mostly by refraining from building, farming or logging within hundreds of feet of streams that are habitat for the fish.

But scientists, fishermen and environmentalists warned that the new policy would lead to the removal of the fish from protected status, the degradation of the streams and rivers where they live and the erosion of the stocks of wild Pacific fish.

"It runs counter to the last 50 years of research on salmon and it's obviously a gross misuse of science," said Ransom Myers, a fisheries biologist from Dalhousie University in Canada who has been advising the National Marine Fisheries Service on salmon recovery.

"The whole plan here is to delist as many species as they can," Myers said. "What we are talking about here is whether they delist one-third of them, or just one or two."

But administration officials said that the fish and their habitat would still be protected.

"I wouldn't expect to see wholesale delisting of species because of this policy," Lecky said.

Lecky said that the government planned to announce the policy in June and would take public comment on it. The government already has missed court-ordered deadlines on deciding whether to remove eight of 15 salmon populations from the protected lists, as is being sought by developers and property rights advocates. Lecky expects a decision on the first eight populations to be made in June as well.

He said no decision had yet been made to take any populations off the list. But another official in the national fisheries service said that at least one or two salmon stocks were likely to be removed from the lists of protected species, and one or two others shifted from the most restrictive category of "endangered" to the less restrictive "threatened" status.

Brooks said that if hatchery fish are counted, "it's going to be darn hard" for the government to keep most of the 26 populations, each of which is genetically distinct from the others, on the protected species lists. But he said it was too early to predict how the government would apply the policy.

(bluefish has include this table for your convenience)

Hatchery-raised fish - millions of which are released in West Coast streams and rivers each year - are now principally used to supply fishermen with something to catch and "mitigate" for loss of salmon habitat from various human activities.

Hydroelectric plants block the salmon's path to and from the ocean. Farmers siphoning water out of rivers to irrigate fields reduce the clean, cool water that the fish need to spawn. Timber harvesting, agriculture and housing development can add silt or other pollutants to the streams and rivers.

Glen Spain, northwest regional director of the Pacific Coastal Federation of Fishermen's Assns., said the proposed hatchery policy was fundamentally flawed because a healthy genetic stock was crucial for Pacific salmon's long-term survival.

"The problem is that it abandons efforts to restore the wild habitat," Spain said. "And without that, we will lose both the hatchery and wild fish. Hatchery fish are derived from wild genetic stocks. If we lose that fundamental genetic foundation, we will lose the hatchery fish as well."

Conservation groups argued that the proposed policy would change the focus to hatcheries as the key formula for restoring salmon populations, and thus draw attention away from the need to restore and protect rivers and streams.

"This flies in the face of 30 years of government practice," said Chris Wood, vice president for conservation at Trout Unlimited. "This has the potential to undermine a decade's worth of positive conservation measures on private state and federal lands."

Kristen Boyles, an attorney with Earthjustice, an environmental law firm, said she feared that under this policy, Pacific salmon would go the way of their cousins in the Atlantic. "On the East Coast, no matter how many hatchery fish they release, the populations aren't coming back," she said.

Commercial fishermen share the concern.

"Even hatchery fish need rivers that flow and places to live between the hatchery and the sea. Salmon have evolved to live in rivers, not concrete tanks," Spain said. "If we don't work to restore these rivers and make them look like rivers, instead of concrete culverts, we will eventually lose it all."

But Bush administration officials said that they would not abandon the government's commitment to salmon habitat.

"We are going to still, under the Endangered Species Act, try to restore properly functioning habitat," Lecky said.

Elizabeth Shogren from Washington and Kenneth R. Weiss from Los Angeles, Times Staff Writers
Critics Call Fish Count a Whopper
Los Angeles Times, April 30, 2004

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