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Hatchery Salmon to Count as Wildlife

by Blaine Harden
The Washington Post, April 29, 2004

SEATTLE -- The Bush administration has decided to count hatchery-bred fish, which are pumped into West Coast rivers by the hundreds of millions yearly, when it decides whether stream-bred wild salmon are entitled to protection under the Endangered Species Act.

This represents a major change in the federal government's approach to protecting Pacific salmon -- a $700 million-a-year effort that it has described as the most expensive and complicated of all attempts to enforce the Endangered Species Act.

The decision, contained in a draft document and confirmed Wednesday by federal officials, means that the health of spawning wild salmon will no longer be the sole gauge of whether a salmon species is judged by the federal government to be on the brink of extinction. Four of five salmon found in major West Coast rivers, including the Columbia, are already bred in hatcheries, and some will now be counted as the federal government tries to determine what salmon species are endangered.

"We need to look at both wild and hatchery fish before deciding whether to list a species for protection," said Bob Lohn, Northwest regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Lohn added that the new policy will probably help guide decisions this summer by the Bush administration about whether to remove 15 species of salmon from protection as endangered or threatened.

From Washington state to Southern California, the decision to count hatchery-bred fish in assessing the health of wild salmon runs could have profound economic consequences.

In the past 15 years, the federal government's effort to protect stream-bred wild salmon has forced costly changes in how forests are cut, housing developments are built, farms are cultivated and rivers are operated for hydroelectricity production. Farm, timber and power interests have complained for years about these costs and have sued to remove protections for some fish.

They are enthusiastic advocates of counting hatchery fish when assessing the survival chances of wild salmon. Unlike their wild cousins, hatchery fish can be bred without ecosystem-wide modifications to highways, farms and dams.

"Upon hearing this news, I am cautiously optimistic that the government may be complying with the law and ending its slippery salmon science," said Russell C. Brooks, a lawyer for the Pacific Legal Foundation, an industry-funded group that has challenged federal salmon-protection efforts in court.

Word of the new policy was greeted by outrage from several environmental groups.

"Rather than address the problems of habitat degraded by logging, dams and urban sprawl, this policy will purposefully mask the precarious condition of wild salmon behind fish raised by humans in concrete pools," said Jan Hasselman, counsel for the National Wildlife Federation.

"This is the same sort of mechanistic, blind reliance on technology that got us into this problem in the first place," said Chris Wood, vice president for conservation at Trout Unlimited. "We built dams that block the fish, and we are trucking many of these fish around the dams. Now the administration thinks we can just produce a bazillion of these hatchery fish and get out from underneath the yoke of the Endangered Species Act."

Six of the world's leading experts on salmon ecology complained last month in the journal Science that fish produced in hatcheries cannot be counted on to save wild salmon. The scientists had been asked by the federal government to comment on its salmon-recovery program but said they were later told that some of their conclusions about hatchery fish were inappropriate for official government reports.

"The current political and legal wrangling is a sideshow to the real issues. We know biologically that hatchery supplements are no substitute for wild fish," Robert Paine, one of the scientists and an ecologist at the University of Washington, said when the Science article was published in late March.

Federal officials said Wednesday that the new policy on hatchery salmon -- to be published in June in the Federal Register and then be opened to public comment -- was in response to a 2001 federal court ruling in Oregon. In that ruling, U.S. District Judge Michael R. Hogan found that the federal government made a mistake by counting only wild fish -- and not genetically similar hatchery fish -- when it listed coastal coho salmon for protection.

To the dismay of many environmental groups, the federal government chose not to appeal that ruling, though it seemed counter to the reasoning behind the spending of more than $2 billion in the past 15 years to protect stream-bred wild salmon.

"There was an inescapable reasoning to Judge Hogan's ruling," said Lohn, chief of federal salmon recovery in the Northwest. "We thought his reasoning was accurate."

He said the Bush administration will continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on habitat improvement for salmon.

"We have major problems to overcome, both with habitat and with improving the way hatcheries are operated," Lohn said. "Run right, hatcheries can be of considerable value to rebuilding wild fish runs."

    Draft Hatchery Listing Policy, 3/25/4 (included for your convenience by bluefish)
  1. Under NOAA, Fisheries 1991 Evolutionary Significant Unit (ESU) policy, a distinct population segment of a Pacific salmonid species is considered for listing if it meets two criteria: (a) it must be substantially reproductively isolated from other conspecific population units; and (b) it must represent an important component in the evolutionary legacy of the species. A key feature of the ESU concept is the recognition of genetic resources that represent the ecological and genetic diversity of the species. These genetic resources can reside in a fish spawned in a hatchery as well as is a fish spawned in the wild.

  2. In delineating an ESU to be considered for listing, NOAA Fisheries will identify all populations that are part of the ESU including populations of natural fish, populations of hatchery fish, and populations that include both natural fish and hatchery fish. Hatchery fish that are genetically no more than moderately divergent from a natural population in the ESU are considered part of the ESU, will be considered in determing whether an ESU should be listed under the ESA, and will be included in any listing of the ESU.

  3. . . . Natural populations, particularly those with minimal genetic contribution from hatchery fish, can provide a point of comparison for the evaluation of effects of hatchery fish on the likelihood of extinction of the ESU.

  4. Status determination for Pacific salmonid ESUs generally consider four key attributes: abundance, productivity, genetic diversity, and spatial distribution. The effects of hatchery fish on the likelihood of extinction of an ESU will depend on which of the four key attributes are currently limiting the ESU, and how the hatchery fish within the ESU affect each of the attributes. The presence within an ESU of hatchery fish that are fish that are genetically no more than moderately divergent from a natural population in the ESU can reduce the likelihood of extinction of the ESU, and affect a listing determination,
    • by contributing to increasing abundance and productivity of the ESU,
    • by improving spatial distribution,
    • and by serving as a source population for repopulating unoccupied habitat.

    Conversely, a hatchery program managed without adequate consideration of conservation effects can increase the likelihood of extinction of an ESU, and affect a listing determination,

    • by reducing genetic diversity of the ESU
    • and reducing the productivity of the ESU.

    In evaluating the effect of hatchery fish in reducing the likelihood of extinction of an ESU, the presence of a long-term hatchery monitoring and evaluation program is an important consideration.

  5. Hatchery programs are capable of producing more fish than may be immediately useful in the conservation and recovery of an ESU and can play an important role in fulfilling trust and treaty obligations with regard to harvest of some Pacific salmonid populations. For ESUs listed as threatened, NOAA Fisheries will, where appropriate, exercise its authority under Section 4(d) of the ESA to allow the harvest of listed hatchery fish that are surplus to the conservation and recovery needs of the ESU in accordance with approved harvest plans.

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

Blaine Harden, Washington Post Staff Writer
Hatchery Salmon to Count as Wildlife
The Washington Post April 29, 2004

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