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U.S. Shift on Salmon Could Cut Protection

by Craig Welch
Seattle Times - April 30, 2004

(Elaine Thompson) Chinook salmon hatchlings swim in a tank at the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery in Issaquah. The Bush administration intends to count fish produced in hatcheries when deciding whether fish runs deserve federal Endangered Species Act protection. A major policy shift by the Bush administration to count millions of hatchery fish often reared in trays or concrete pools alongside wild salmon could lead to the removal of Endangered Species Act protections from several Washington salmon runs.

A federal court judge yesterday ordered the administration to respond within the next 30 days to builders and farm groups that have argued in court that abundant hatchery runs of everything from Puget Sound chinook to Columbia River steelhead make ESA protections unnecessary.

Drafts of the administration's sweeping new hatchery policy leaked to the press show the government for the first time will consider the abundance of both artificially produced and wild fish when assessing the health of troubled salmon stocks.

The policy could affect 27 protected salmon and steelhead runs on the West Coast. The eight protected runs in Washington state are on the Columbia and Snake rivers, in Hood Canal and Puget Sound.

The move is significant because in many listed runs, hatchery fish make up the vast majority of returning salmon.

In 2003, for example, 182,000 Puget Sound chinook returned from the ocean to their spawning grounds all but 37,000 of them were hatchery fish. Only about 10 percent of returning Columbia River chinook are wild.

But scientists also maintain that hatchery fish compete with wild fish, and hatchery offspring often don't reproduce successfully. Hatchery fish tend to be larger, and can prey on young wild fish.

Last month, a panel of independent scientists published an opinion paper in the journal Science arguing that hatcheries should be considered only as a tool to help rebuild wild runs.

The policy change was applauded by development and farm groups who have spent millions of dollars altering how they build or irrigate farms to accommodate plummeting runs of wild salmon. Builders often must avoid allowing runoff into streams from nearby construction. Farmers sometimes can't get as much water as they would like.

"It's about time," said Timothy Harris, an attorney with the Building Industry Association of Washington, which has been battling National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries in court over salmon listings. "I'm hoping this will finally result in de-listing of some of these salmon populations."

But the policy shift flabbergasted environmentalists, who argued that it ignores decades of evidence that hatchery fish often reared from eggs taken from fish native to different rivers are distinct from their wild brethren.

"It's a downright zany idea," said Chris Wood of Trout Unlimited, a former Clinton administration official. "The idea that artificially raised fish are the same as those raised in a healthy productive stream is a dramatic departure from 30 years of well-established science."

At issue is how the administration responds to a string of lawsuits that grew out of controversial September 2001 court ruling about Oregon coastal coho.

In that case, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Hogan ruled that while the National Marine Fisheries Service included hatchery fish when it defined coastal coho as a distinct salmon run, it excluded hatchery fish when assessing the run's health under the ESA.

The fisheries service declined to appeal Hogan's ruling. Instead, property-rights groups, developers and ranchers filed several suits, arguing that since the agency used a similar approach in its salmon and steelhead listings up and down the West Coast, those listings also should be thrown out.

"The way they handle salmon is outrageous," said Harris, the building industry attorney. "They list Puget Sound chinook from the Nisqually and the Elwha rivers as part of the same population, even though they're nowhere near each other and don't interbreed. At the same time, they exclude fish in the same river, just because they're from hatcheries never mind that the runs as a whole are doing well."

Environmental groups also filed suit, arguing that the government should simply redefine listed runs to include only wild stocks the fish that ultimately the ESA is trying to preserve.

They feared that simply adding hatchery and wild fish together could lessen the political will to protect freshwater habitat so that wild fish runs are rebuilt. "It's like saying we have 400 California condors in zoos around the us, and they should still count toward recovery of wild condors," said Bruce Sanford, a salmon biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. "The ramifications are broad: It's saying if you can artificially produce an animal and release it into the wild, then that takes the place of habitat, whether it's butterflies, condors or black-footed ferrets."

NMFS agreed to develop a uniform policy on hatcheries and review the listing status of all the West Coast salmon species.

Its review of eight Washington species is due within a month. Bob Lohn, regional administrator for the fisheries service, said the complete hatchery policy will be released at the same time.

But leaked portions of the hatchery policy offer clues to how NMFS is leaning. In one section, the draft declares that hatchery fish "that are no more than moderately divergent" from wild fish will be counted when considering ESA status.

"That's a loophole large enough to drive a hatchery truck through," said Jeff Curtis, with Trout Unlimited. "We, as humans, are no more than moderately divergent from chimpanzees, but that doesn't make us the same."

Yesterday, the administration was silent on precisely how the new policy would affect ESA listings. But Lohn suggested critics were overreacting.

"What in general you will see is a policy that looks at both wild fish and fish in hatcheries, and emphasizes the way in which they support one another," said Bob Lohn, regional administrator for the NOAA Fisheries. "There's no intention that this policy will say it's OK to have all your fish from a hatchery. And it's fully our intention to continue to protect habitat."

Related Pages:
Snake Hatcheries Release 13 Million Chinook Columbia Basin Bulletin, 4/23/4

Craig Welch
U.S. Shift on Salmon Could Cut Protection
Seattle Times, April 30, 2004

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