Salmon Recovery Efforts Must be Based on Scienceby Ron Sims & Larry Phillips, King County Officials
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 12, 2004
The Pacific Northwest faces a new threat to the long-term survival of our wild salmon runs: environmental policy decisions based on federal politics, not science.
The Bush administration proposes in a draft policy to count millions of hatchery fish as part of West Coast wild salmon runs, when in fact they are very different animals. The administration is all but saying that hatchery fish production can make up for land use and industrial actions that destroy salmon habitat and harm water quality for people. The administration is wrong.
There is overwhelming scientific evidence that hatchery fish are no replacement for wild ones and large hatchery runs are no excuse for dodging or delaying meaningful habitat protections for chinook, kokanee and bull trout. Hatcheries are extensions of -- not replacements for -- habitat protections that will ultimately be the foundation of sustainable and harvestable salmon populations.
We've proven we can fertilize and hatch salmon eggs in a pond but when compared to wild fish, hatchery fish are genetically inferior, more susceptible to disease and less adaptable than their wild counterparts. Their size and number threaten wild fingerlings by attracting predators and competing with them for food and habitat.
Because hatchery fish are brewed in a tank, they don't imprint on their home streams like wild fish do. Like an unleashed computer virus, once launched into the wild, hatchery fish travel freely to a variety of streams, bringing with them increased risks to wild fish.
Recent headlines proclaim record returns of salmon. But the question to ask is, "Record returns of what?" The answer: returns of hatchery sockeye or chinook that represent a tiny percentage of the historic runs of wild salmon that used to thrive in our rivers.
Using the federal government's own scientific review from the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, nine rivers around the Puget Sound have lost wild chinook runs. About one-third of the Puget Sound basin's historical chinook runs have gone extinct and current returns may be one-tenth -- or less -- of what they were. This means, on average, where we had 5,000 chinook returning in the past we now have only 500, and where we had 1,000, we now have only 100. This is a terrible and alarming record that spans more than a century. But we can recover some of what we've lost -- if we base our recovery efforts on science.
King County is preserving key habitat areas in Bear Creek and the Cedar River. King, Pierce and Snohomish counties are implementing the road maintenance standards that received NOAA approval for the habitat and salmon protections they support. We are also moving toward implementing conservation plans for Lake Washington and the Green and Snohomish rivers, and working through the shared strategy process to have a chinook recovery strategy in place by June of 2005.
People also benefit from the environmental conditions needed to keep salmon viable. Habitat preservation and restoration help keep the drinking water clean for approximately 20,000 Kent and King County residents who get their water from Rock Creek.
Now is not the time for the other Washington to gut the efforts of local citizens and their government partners. Puget Sound and Pacific Northwest people have made tremendous investments to return our salmon populations to robust health and preserve our quality of life. It's unacceptable for the Bush administration to forsake us by defying local policy and long-established scientific evidence to allow hatchery stock to count the same as wild salmon. Current Endangered Species Act protections save salmon, promote healthy habitat for fish and people and support sustainable fisheries. Don't defy the scientific evidence and threaten our success by miscounting our fish.
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