by Editorial Board
Hatchery-bred fish can't be counted toward Endangered Species Act goals
Endangered wild fish are not the same as hatchery fish. That's because hatchery fish are neither wild nor endangered. Any policy that treats them the same hardly honors the Endangered Species Act. That's the scientifically compelling logic behind a new ruling by Seattle U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenour.
In response to a lawsuit brought by environmental groups, Coughenour held that the National Marine Fisheries Service should not have taken hatchery steelhead into account when it downlisted upper Columbia River steelhead from "endangered" to "threatened" - a move that gave the run less legal protection.
Coughenour wrote: "Though it scarcely seems open to debate, the court concludes that in evaluating any policy or listing determination under the ESA, its pole star must be the viability of naturally self-sustaining populations in their naturally-occurring habitat."
He found it "odd" that NMFS factored in hatchery steelhead with wild when making the decision.
This dispute has a long history. It started years ago when property rights advocates - who loathed the restrictions that salmon and steelhead listings were forcing on private lands - filed their own lawsuit arguing that Northwest salmon were thriving, not declining, because genetically similar hatchery fish abounded.
They won a round in 2001 when an Oregon federal judge, Michael Hogan, ruled that NMFS had to "consider" the hatchery fish in determining whether a given run was in danger of extinction.
Although the Bush administration didn't appeal Hogan's decision, as environmentalists wanted, neither did it do what the property rights crowd wanted: de-list every wild salmon and steelhead run that shared a river with enough genetically similar hatchery fish. Instead, NMFS emphasized that it would continue to use multiple factors - including abundance, distribution and reproduction in the wild - in listing salmon and steelhead.
But while most protections have remained in place, the presence of hatchery fish led to the downlisting of the Upper Columbia steelhead - and Coughenour's rejection of that downlisting.
Hatcheries can, in some cases, be used to help rebuild a dying run of salmon or steelhead. But Coughenour's ruling asserted a crucial biological principle: Preservation of a species is about preservation of its habitat, not merely its genes.
There's a bright line between being born in the wild and getting bred in captivity. Muddy that line enough, and grizzly bears in zoos or California condors in cages become evidence that these species are doing just fine.
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