Some Fish Might Lose Protectionby Erik Robinson, Staff Writer
The Columbian, November 10, 2001
The Bush administration announced Friday it won't appeal a landmark decision by a federal judge, throwing into question Endangered Species Act listings of salmon across the West Coast.
The decision triggers a major review of the role of hatcheries in recovering salmon.
U.S. District Court Judge Michael Hogan rebuked the National Marine Fisheries Service in September for listing wild populations of Oregon coastal coho salmon as threatened but not their hatchery-raised cousins. On Friday, the eve of a 60-day appeal deadline, the government announced that it would let the ruling stand.
Property rights advocates lauded the administration's decision; conservation groups denounced it. Washington Gov. Gary Locke welcomed the decision, while Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber said he was disappointed.
In an effort to make all listings consistent with Hogan's decision, the fisheries service announced it will review 23 of the 25 West Coast salmon and steelhead stocks currently listed as threatened or endangered. Each of those 23 stocks is at least partly composed of hatchery fish, similar to the Oregon coastal coho.
In some cases, the review may lead to removing stocks from federal protection.
Fisheries officials also said they will develop a consistent policy on how to treat hatchery fish in light of Hogan's decision.
"In no way has the administration backed away from the Endangered Species Act," said Bill Hogarth, NMFS director. "In fact, we're committed to a comprehensive, open and transparent process."
Salmon restoration has touched everyday life in the Pacific Northwest. Controversies include new federal rules curbing urban development, a debate over removing hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake River, and battles over logging and agricultural practices.
Listing or no listing, federal officials said they remain committed to salmon recovery on the West Coast.
"It's time to stop fighting and start fixing," said Bob Lohn, NMFS regional administrator in Seattle.
But the fight is far from over, conservation groups said.
A coalition of environmental groups, represented by the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, plans to appeal Hogan's decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Hogan hasn't decided yet whether to allow those groups to intervene in the lawsuit.
A fundamental principle is at stake, said Patti Goldman, an Earthjustice attorney.
"The Endangered Species Act is designed to ensure that populations can survive in the wild," Goldman said. "The rules could lead to the conclusion that as long as you have hatcheries, you are meeting the requirement of the act, and that's an anomaly."
Hogan ruled that the Endangered Species Act doesn't allow NMFS to lump naturally spawning coastal coho and hatchery coho in the same group, and then give threatened species protection only to wild fish.
It was a straightforward ruling, said Russell Brooks, the attorney representing the Alsea Valley Alliance in the lawsuit against NMFS.
"Even if one accepts the fact that hatchery fish simply don't reproduce as successfully in the wild, that doesn't mean the reason for that is they're a different species -- because they're not," Brooks said. "It may indicate there are some hatchery management practices that need to be changed."
In the past, the fisheries service has maintained there are practical and scientific reasons for protecting one but not the other.
Biologists worry that by raising fish in hatcheries, they gradually lose the characteristics they developed over generations to adapt to specific rivers and streams, thus threatening their long-term survival. In the Columbia basin, overfishing and dramatic habitat changes over the past century have driven the number of returning spawners from as many as 16 million to barely 2 million -- and most of those come from hatcheries.
Lohn indicated it's unlikely the government will delist populations where naturally spawning stocks are hanging on by a thread.
"We're still in trouble because we don't have a self-sustaining natural population," he said.
The fisheries service will spend until September of next year sorting out the interaction between fish that spawn in the wild and their hatchery-raised cousins.
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