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Under Plan, Fall Chinook could be Delisted

by Rocky Barker
The Idaho Statesman, May 2, 2004

Critics disagree on effects of new hatchery policy

The Bush administration's draft hatchery policy opens the door for removing Idaho's most controversial endangered species from the list: the Snake River fall chinook.

The salmon's numbers have jumped in recent years, primarily due to supplementation from a hatchery in Washington. But scientists say the fall chinook's recovery is blocked by a shortage of spawning habitat caused by the construction of the Idaho Power Co. Hells Canyon dams and four federal dams on the Snake River in Washington.

The new Bush policy would consider the Lyons Ferry Hatchery in Washington an extension of the fall chinook's limited habitat. That could give the agency grounds to eliminate federal protection of the fish.

Removing the fall chinook from the endangered species list would make relicensing the Hells Canyon dams easier and cheaper for Idaho Power. It also could reduce demand for the use of Snake River reservoir water from southern Idaho, thus increasing summer flows to aid salmon.

Tribal and Alaskan commercial fishermen would face fewer restraints on the harvest of other salmon that are not protected by the Endangered Species Act if fall chinook were removed from the list. Politically, it would divide the salmon advocates who agree on restoring wild salmon but have great differences on the role of hatcheries.

"Overall, this policy has been developed without focusing on who it would affect," said Bob Lohn, Northwest regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

"In the case of Hells Canyon fall chinook, what we have seen is a run that's rebounded from a few hundred fish to well over 20,000," Lohn said. "We see the naturally spawning population rebounding."

Salmon advocates describe the new hatchery policy as an attempt to reduce the effort and responsibility to save wild fish. Targeting the fall chinook, which has fewer friends and more enemies, confirms their suspicions, said Jan Hasselman, an attorney with the National Wildlife Federation in Seattle.

"There is nothing accidental about the way this is set up," Hasselman said. "We are talking about a process in which the federal government will walk away from its responsibility for restoring salmon."

Many fisheries biologists also have been critical of the proposed policy. Even though hatchery salmon are virtually identical to wild fish genetically, they are far less hardy and productive than those that spawn in the wild.

"Interbreeding between wild and hatchery fish could reduce the fitness of wild populations and reduce their ability to survive," said Jim Lichatowich, a fisheries biologist and author of the book "Salmon Without Rivers."

Rick Williams, a fish geneticist from Meridian who has headed several independent panels looking at Pacific Northwest salmon, agrees with Lichatowich. But a possible silver lining to the Bush policy is that hatchery fish management would have to be integrated closer with wild salmon management, he said.

That would force managers to scale back hatchery production so it does not overwhelm the wild fish numbers. Harvest also would have to be managed so that wild numbers would not be reduced, Williams said. Such concerns would make it hard to drop all of the restrictions the fall chinook listing currently forces, he said.

"The great danger is this high-end conservation management won't be implemented at that level," Williams said.

Bill Sedivy, executive director of Idaho Rivers United, said the change won't come easy.

"It's premature for Bob Lohn or anyone else to be talking about de-listing Snake River fall chinook, or any other species of salmon and steelhead for that matter," Sedivy said. "This hatchery proposal is going to spark a huge fight, perhaps even bigger than the Snake River dam removal debate, that might not be resolved for years."

Rocky Barker
Under Plan, Fall Chinook could be Delisted
The Idaho Statesman, May 2, 2004

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