Proposed Policy Equating
by Les Blumenthal, Washington, D.C., Bureau
WASHINGTON -- In tentatively concluding there is little difference between wild and hatchery salmon, the Bush administration rejected the findings of independent scientists and, instead, opted for a fundamental shift in long-established policy that could affect federal protections for up to 25 West Coast runs.
The administration's move, outlined in a one-page confidential memo reviewed by the White House Council on Environmental Policy, represents a major victory for agricultural interests and developers who had fought the listings of salmon and steelhead runs under the Endangered Species Act.
It was a major setback for environmentalists, who say the White House manipulated an earlier court decision for political purposes.
The proposed policy, still in draft form, comes at a time of record or near-record runs on rivers and streams. Most of the returning fish, in some cases 90 percent or more, are hatchery-raised rather than wild.
Despite spending more than $700 million annually on the most extensive effort ever to recover an endangered species, improved ocean conditions rather than man-made fixes are generally credited for the healthy runs.
Hatcheries have played a key role in supplementing wild runs since the 1930s, when the federal government embarked on an ambitious program to build massive hydroelectric dams. The dams flooded spawning habitat and interfered with migrating fish.
Until now, only wild salmon and steelhead have been considered when deciding on federal protection.
Myers was one of six scientists appointed to an independent advisory panel by federal officials to look at whether wild and hatchery-bred salmon are genetically similar. Myers and other members of the panel said officials of the National Marine Fisheries Service were not pleased when the panel concluded there were significant differences.
"Any science that contradicted them was not welcome," Myers said in a telephone interview. The scientists, he said, basically found that "you can't replace wild salmon with hatchery salmon. It's like saying Chihuahuas and wolves are the same."
Other members of the scientific panel also were critical of the administration.
"The current political and legal wrangling is a sideshow to the real issues," Robert Paine, a biologist at the University of Washington, said in an earlier statement. "The science is clear and unambiguous -- as they are currently operated, hatcheries and hatchery fish cannot protect wild stocks."
The advisory panel said the tens of millions of hatchery fish released into western rivers each year are well-fed and larger than wild ones. But Myers said the hatchery fish also are genetically inferior, and staking the survival of all salmon on those bred in captivity would be a mistake.
For more than a century, hatcheries on the East Coast have been used to raise Atlantic salmon. But Atlantic salmon runs in Maine and Canada remain near extinction, Myers said.
Administration officials sought to downplay the impact of the new policy.
Of the 26 federally protected salmon and steelhead runs on the West Coast, all but one -- Southern California steelhead -- eventually will be reviewed in light of the new policy, Lecky said. Fifteen of the listed runs have been challenged by various groups; of those, NOAA-Fisheries is under court pressure to make a decision quickly, perhaps by the end of June.
"This doesn't necessarily mean they will be de-listed or reclassified," Lecky said. "We don't know how many will actually be affected."
The memo outlining the proposed new policy, a copy of which was obtained by the Herald, concluded hatchery fish that are genetically "no more than moderately divergent" from wild ones will be considered when deciding whether a run should receive federal protection. The phrase "moderately divergent" was not defined.
But the memo also said federal officials will recognize the "necessity" of conserving wild salmon populations and conserving the ecosystems salmon depend on.
Lecky conceded the policy, if finally adopted, would be controversial. But he said it still makes distinctions between wild and hatchery fish.
"The policy doesn't say a fish is a fish," he said.
Asked about White House involvement, Lecky said top environmental officials in the White House routinely review policy changes, such as the hatchery one.
The hatchery issue took center stage in the salmon debate when a federal judge in Oregon ruled in 2001 that Oregon coastal coho salmon should not have received federal protection.
U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan said genetically similar hatchery fish, along with wild fish, should have been counted in deciding to list the coastal coho under the Endangered Species Act.
Rather than appealing, the administration decided to review whether the Hogan ruling applied to other salmon and steelhead listings.
Russ Brooks, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, which filed the lawsuit leading to the Hogan decision, said the administration policy was a huge step in the right direction. But the issue is far from resolved, he said.
Brooks likened the differences between hatchery and wild fish to the differences between people with blue eyes and brown eyes.
"They are all the same species," he said. "There is 100 percent agreement that wild fish and hatchery fish are the same species. Congress called it the Endangered Species Act. Genetic differences between every fish is basically irrelevant."
But environmentalists said the administration ignored the findings of most scientists.
"This totally contradicts what scientists say," said Kristin Boyles, a lawyer with Earthjustice. "There is no question if they continue along this line there will be further litigation."
Northwest lawmakers were caught off guard by the new policy, and some were highly critical of the administration.
"It's a big mistake," said Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash.
Dicks likened the new salmon policy to that of the previous Bush administration's action when it came to spotted owls. That administration refused to acknowledge scientific findings about the owl and old-growth forests, and eventually a federal judge halted logging on millions of acres in the Northwest, the congressman said.
"This is very similar," Dicks said. "What we need is something that is scientifically defensible and legally credible. We are going to be back at war over salmon and back in the courts."
Dicks, and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said the administration's policy on hatchery fish was politically motivated and would undercut current salmon recovery efforts.
"Everyone was united on a plan, progress was being made and now this," Cantwell said. "No one wants the Northwest to be plunged into legal and political uncertainty over how to proceed with salmon recovery."
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