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NOAA to Hear Opinions on Fish Policy

by Eric Barker
Lewiston Tribune, September 27, 2004

Federal agency floats draft of newest hatchery plan in Lewiston

Is a fish a fish? When it comes to some threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead populations, the federal government says it is.

In May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a new policy saying genetically similar hatchery salmon and steelhead would be counted the same as their wild cousins that spawn in streams instead of concrete runs.

Under the draft policy, hatchery steelhead in the Snake and Clearwater rivers will be considered part of the same population of fish that is now listed as a threatened species in those waters.

Officials from NOAA will visit Lewiston Tuesday to hold a public hearing on the new policy and give people a chance to comment on the controversial move. They are sure to hear a mixture of opinions.

Salmon advocates and environmental groups oppose the new policy because they believe it weakens protections for wild fish. Others who want to save the lower Snake River dams applaud the policy because they believe it makes removing those dams less likely.

"I think if you have two hatchery fish and they go to the sea and they come back and spawn in the wild, they are wild fish," says Les Wiggins, a Whitman County commissioner. "To me it is immaterial whether they cut their fins or don't cut their fins."

The adipose fins of juvenile hatchery fish are clipped so they can be distinguished by anglers from protected wild fish. Wild fish must be released.

The new policy on hatchery fish stems from a federal court case in Oregon. In that case, Judge Michael Hogan at Portland ruled NOAA erred when it said hatchery coho and wild coho are part of the same population of fish but only protected the wild fish under the Endangered Species Act.

The ruling cast doubt on almost every salmon and steelhead listing on the West Coast, and NOAA officials vowed to review each of those listings and to write a new hatchery policy.

When the policy was announced, the agency said even though hatchery fish would be counted the same as wild fish, none of the threatened or endangered runs would be removed from federal protection.

Salmon advocates, like Bert Bowler of Idaho Rivers United at Boise, believe the new policy has a twist. Bowler acknowledges the government had to respond to the Hogan ruling, but he says a better answer would have been to simply declare wild fish and hatchery fish to be two separate but similar populations.

He fears when the two populations are lumped together, federal protection could be removed before those that spawn in the wild are truly protected.

"I think that is where NOAA wants to go with this, to have the ability to have those additional numbers to help delist them."

Bob Lohn, regional director of NOAA Fisheries, has said delisting will not occur until wild and hatchery fish both reach healthy levels.

As part of the new policy, the government is including several rainbow trout populations in the same populations as threatened steelhead because they are genetically similar.

Under this part of the policy, rainbow trout in the North Fork of the Clearwater River above Dworshak Dam would be considered a threatened species.

Jim Caswell, director of Idaho's Office of Species Conservation, says that could lead to more land management restrictions on the Clearwater National Forest.

"How does that contribute to recovery, for god's sake? We are really a little bit bent out of shape about the whole notion."

He says if the new policy is adopted, the Forest Service would likely have to consult with NOAA Fisheries each time it proposes a project, such a timber sale, above the dam.

"It's like a new species has just come on the list."

Caswell says the state also is worried the new policy will make it more difficult to hold and manage recreational steelhead fisheries.

The meeting will be from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. at the Red Lion Hotel in Lewiston. Both oral and written comments will be accepted. The deadline for comments is Oct. 20.

Eric Barker
NOAA to Hear Opinions on Fish Policy
Lewiston Tribune, September 27, 2004

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