Feds Defend Plan to Count Hatchery Fish
by Elizabeth M. Gillespie, Associated Press
SEATTLE -- The Bush administration's proposal to count hatchery fish along with wild stocks is not a government attempt to inflate endangered or threatened salmon and steelhead runs so they can be stripped of federal protection, a top NOAA Fisheries official says.
"Listing and delisting is not a numbers game. It's not just a matter of abundance," Bob Lohn, the agency's Northwest regional director, told a news conference Friday at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's regional headquarters.
Lohn stressed that three other factors - productivity, distribution and genetic diversity - are equally important in gauging the health of fish runs and determining whether they warrant Endangered Species Act protection.
Hatcheries "used in appropriate cases, typically in the short term, ... can bolster the naturally spawning runs. We know because it's been done, and it appears to work," Lohn said.
"But does that mean you simply take all the numbers of fish and smush them altogether and say, 'So here's our new ESU (Evolutionarily Significant Unit), and there's no difference among the fish?' The science won't take you there, and this policy doesn't either."
Critics cried foul, suggesting that the proposed policy flies in the face of science.
"Hatcheries are no substitute for habitat," said Rob Masonis, Northwest regional director for American Rivers. "Scientists agree that if we are going to restore wild salmon, we need to restore the river habitat they depend on."
After reviewing 26 threatened or endangered Pacific salmon runs, federal biologists found that all should stay on the list of protected species and that a 27th - Lower Columbia coho - should be added.
That list includes the Oregon Coast coho, whose threatened species status was rescinded by a 2001 federal court ruling, which held that NOAA fisheries officials had erred by not giving hatchery fish the same protection as wild fish.v The review, prompted by the 2001 federal court ruling, revealed that two endangered stocks - the Sacramento River's winter run of chinook salmon and the Upper Columbia River's steelhead - should be relisted as threatened, and that one threatened stock - Central California Coast coho - should be relisted as endangered.
Endangered species are those in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of their range; threatened species are deemed likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future.
Out of roughly 340 hatchery programs in the Pacific Northwest, 162 produce fish that are sufficiently genetically similar to wild stocks that the government is recommending that they be included in the same group, or ESU.
A preliminary review showed that genetic similarities between hatchery and wild fish exist in 23 out of the 27 runs recommended for federal protection. There are no hatchery programs for the four other stocks: Central Valley (Calif.) spring run chinook, Southern California steelhead, South Central California Coast steelhead and Upper Willamette River steelhead.
Environmental groups opposed to the policy contend that rather than helping, hatchery fish have contributed to the decline of wild salmon and steelhead stocks over the last several decades.
Young hatchery fish compete with wild stocks for food, but are less successful at avoiding predators and other hazards because they were raised in concrete pools and are thus not challenged to hone their survival instincts. Crowded rivers also lead to the spread of disease.
Lohn acknowledged that poorly run hatcheries - and he admitted there are a lot of them - harm naturally spawning fish runs.
"What this really leads to is the need for widespread hatchery reform," Lohn said. "The fact that there are genetic similarities doesn't mean they're benefiting the runs."
Lohn and Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Jr., NOAA's administrator, noted that the policy proposals are not final and that the government will spend the next 90 days fielding the public's comments.
"This isn't a federal fiat saying, 'This is how it's going to be,'" Lohn said. "Now it's up to the public to say how we could do it better."
NOAA Fisheries: www.nmfs.noaa.gov
American Rivers: www.amrivers.org
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