It's a Shame the Beneficial Creation
by Owen Squires
Recently, some regional advocacy groups made hyperbolic claims that a forthcoming federal hatchery policy will propose to replace natural habitat for salmon and steelhead with man-made hatchery ponds. It's troubling that these groups have reacted so negatively to a policy that will be designed to aid salmon recovery and that has not even been released to the public.
This knee-jerk reaction has only served to politicize and polarize an issue that should be non-partisan. In fact, NOAA Fisheries is responding to a court order that requires equal protection for wild and hatchery fish. Indeed, the crafting of a new hatchery policy is something NOAA is bound to do in order to meet the mandates of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Here's the background: in September 2001, Judge Michael R. Hogan of the U.S. District Court in Eugene, Ore. ruled that wild and hatchery fish from the same population must be given the same protection under the ESA. In other words, the court ruled it unlawful to provide different levels of protection for subsets of a population that were essentially indistinguishable.
NOAA's new hatchery policy is being written to correct the inconsistencies in the implementation of the ESA brought to light by that ruling, and to abide by the law.
The purpose of the Endangered Species Act is to protect imperiled species and their natural habitats and to enable the establishment of self-sustaining populations. To achieve that purpose, the act allows for the use of artificial means to conserve species at risk. The government has a long history of using captive breeding programs. Several ESA-listed populations of Columbia River salmon are currently reared in conservation hatcheries. Snake River sockeye are reared until juvenile, and only then released in their home lakes to begin their journey to the sea. Without captive breeding programs, neither California condors nor gray wolves would have been reintroduced to their native habitats. When operated intelligently, hatcheries can be a great help to increase populations of wild fish.
Hatcheries have been a part of the Northwest salmon recovery effort for over a hundred years. Today there are more than 400 of them in the Columbia River Basin. These hatcheries have not always acted in a coordinated way, and some work better than others. Still, opponents of hatcheries tend to emphasize the potential risks while ignoring the benefits. Numerous Northwest hatchery operators, including many tribal operators, have demonstrated that fish originating from well managed hatcheries can contribute significantly to the recovery of endangered salmon runs. Two particularly successful, widely supported programs — the Hatchery Reform Project in the Puget Sound and the basin-wide Artificial Production Review and Evaluation program — are producing recommendations that will be effective throughout the region.
There is no silver bullet for saving salmon, and NOAA has never contended that hatcheries are the only answer. But common sense should tell us to pursue policies that will clarify the important role that hatcheries do play in the recovery effort.
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