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Habitat Protection Remains Important,
says Agency Director

by Cookson Beecher, Washington State Staff Writer
Capital Press, April 2, 2004

For farmers, the ongoing controversy over hatchery and wild fish and how the two fit into salmon recovery and habitat protections can be baffling.

On one side of the equation is U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan’s ruling that hatchery fish must be taken into account when determining Oregon coastal coho populations.

The effect of that decision could mean that when accounting for hatchery fish — not just wild fish — in other listed fish stocks, some of those stocks may be delisted. Delisting would end mandatory environmental protections under the Endangered Species Act.

On the other side of the equation are recently published recommendations from a team of prominent, independent scientists that warn the fisheries agencies not to be tempted to count hatchery fish with wild fish when trying to rebuild fish stocks. To do so, say the scientists, could have devastating consequences, including the decline or even extinction of wild fish.

In this scenario, which favors wild fish over hatchery fish, most listed fish stocks would likely remain listed, and environmental protections would be required under the ESA.

Bob Lohn, Northwest regional director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, said that as a result of Hogan’s decision, the agency agreed to look at 27 different stocks of listed fish and take hatchery fish into consideration.

“In most cases, hatchery fish were not counted,” he said, referring to the listing determinations for those stocks. “If we include hatchery fish, it can change the picture.”

Referring to the recent scientific report that warned against too great a reliance on hatchery fish, Lohn said that while this is coming from distinguished scientists, there are others that would strongly disagree.

Nevertheless, he said that the emerging consensus in the scientific field is that it’s not so much that all hatchery fish are bad but more that extreme care must be taken in how wild and hatchery fish are integrated if wild runs are to be protected and rebuilt.

“The bottomline for agriculture is that we won’t be in a situation where hatcheries produce so many fish that habitat doesn’t matter,” he said.

Because agriculture plays such an important role in habitat protection, Lohn believes that fish agencies need to partner with farmers and provide incentives and encouragement to maintain and restore fish habitat.

But instead of a one-size-fits-all regime, Lohn said habitat requirements will be based on a location-by-location basis, depending on the specific fish stock in question, how it’s doing, and the measures landowners in a watershed have taken to protect the fish.

“Providing space for natural spawners will be an important component throughout the future,” he said. “We won’t be able to rely on hatchery fish alone.”

Lohn, who has walked the land with farmers across the state, believes that agriculture offers some of the best fish habitat in the region, primarily because farmers have historically been good stewards of watersheds.

And unlike some who would portray agriculture as “the bad guy” in fish recovery, Lohn sees it otherwise.

“Agriculture is actually a big part of the answer,” he said.

Referring to the agency’s current review of 27 stocks of listed fish in Washington, Oregon, California and Idaho, NMFS spokesman Brian Gorman said it’s naive to assume that because of the Hogan ruling that listings and habitat requirements will go away.

“No one thinks that habitat doesn’t matter,” he said. “We’re not saying there won’t be changes in listings. But we don’t want people to think they’ll suddenly evaporate. If they think that, they’ll be disappointed.”

Dean Boyer, spokesman for the Washington State Farm Bureau, said no one is suggesting that farmers lessen efforts to improve habitat for salmon.

“Farmers and ranchers aren’t saying that,” he said. “They’re out there every day doing it while environmentalists and tribes are arguing about it. In many instances, farmers are the only people working to improve habitat. They care about their land.”

Cookson Beecher, Washington State Staff Writer
Habitat Protection Remains Important, says Agency Director
Capital Press, April 2, 2004

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