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Proposed Hathcery Policy Leaked,
But is it Really News?

by Bill Rudolph
NW Fishletter, May 11, 2004

(photo by Dave Fast) Cle Elum salmon supplementation and research facility. A story in the April 28th Washington Post claiming that the Bush Administration has decided to count hatchery-bred fish when deciding the status of ESA-listed salmon stocks may be a bit premature. Citing an unreleased draft document, the story said federal officials had confirmed the decision, quoting NOAA Fisheries regional administrator Bob Lohn as saying that both wild and hatchery stocks need to be looked at before deciding whether to list a species.

But a source familiar with the proposed policy said the excerpt leaked to the paper may or may not be part of the final policy expected to be under agency review until sometime in June.

In Post reporter Blaine Harden's story, Lohn said "that the new policy will probably help guide decisions this summer by the Bush Administration."

Though the story generated the predictable strong support from the pro-hatchery camp and negatives from wild-fish advocates, the result was less than real news. After all, Lohn had told a Senate subcommittee last summer that his agency "believes artificial production facilities can make an important contribution to salmon recovery in the Northwest."

If hatchery fish that are genetically similar to wild fish stocks listed under the ESA are counted as part of any stock under review, it's likely that some groups would be proposed for delisting, a process that takes another year to complete.

A new policy has been in the works for nearly two years, forced by the 2001 federal court decision by Oregon District Court Judge Michael Hogan, who found that the feds had illegally interpreted the ESA by not including the hatchery component of the Oregon coastal coho stock for protection along with the wild stock (Alsea Valley Alliance v. Evans). NOAA Fisheries declined to appeal the ruling, but environmental groups did. However, the decision was recently upheld by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The day before the story appeared in the Post, NOAA Fisheries spokesman Brian Gorman told NW Fishletter that the new hatchery policy would be published in the Federal Register by late spring. Gorman said part of the hang-up was getting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on board. The USFWS was concerned that by supporting NOAA's new hatchery policy, they would be locked into a new national policy regarding listed aquatic species managed by the agencies.

However, on April 29 Spokane federal Judge Robert Whaley issued an order that gives the federal agency only 30 more days to announce decisions (Building Industry Association of Washington v. NOAA) for eight different stocks petitioned for de-listing in the wake of the Hogan decision.

Several groups of developers, irrigators and property owners claiming economic harm from the current listings took the feds to court last August after the agency exceeded the one-year statutory time limit for deciding on their 2001 petitions. The groups agreed with the government to give NOAA Fisheries until March 31 to complete the process.

After that date came and went, the feds asked for a 90-day extension to give them time to complete their new hatchery policy, which was going to be used as a tool to help in the delisting process. NOAA promised decisions for all 27 listed West Coast salmon and steelhead stocks in three months. But the plaintiffs refused to give them any more time and the issue went back in court.

In an affidavit filed in the BIAW case, Lohn said a new hatchery policy would be out for public review by March 31, explaining to Judge Whaley that a joint task force from the Commerce and Interior Departments had been working to come up with the new policy. "NOAA Fisheries has encountered unexpected difficulty and complexity in developing a new hatchery policy to be applied in making the new listing determinations," he said.

Lohn told the judge there were several challenges, including: developing general standards for evaluating if a hatchery stock is part of the ESU [Evolutionarily Significant Unit] in which it is located; considering the role of hatchery fish in assuring an ESU's survival; analyzing up-to-date information on hatchery effects, both good and bad; and obtaining information on historical and current operations on hundreds of hatchery programs, along with recent changes to various hatchery management plans and purposes.

Early last year, a NOAA Fisheries working group developed four categories for hatchery populations in a draft report on status updates for listed ESUs. The first category included hatchery fish derived from a native, local population and released within the range of that native population that has experienced minor genetic changes "from causes such as founder effects, domestication, or non-local introgression." A second category includes hatchery fish derived from a local population that has experienced a moderate level of genetic changes. Category 3 includes hatchery stocks derived principally from other populations in the same ESU, but "is substantially diverged from the local population in the watershed in which it's released. The last category includes hatchery stocks "predominantly derived from populations that are not part of the ESU in question; or there is substantial uncertainty about the origin and history of the hatchery population."

The document leaked last week says "The presence within an ESU of hatchery 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." But the leaked excerpt also says that a hatchery population managed without 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 an ESU.

So it seems likely that NOAA may opt for counting hatchery stocks from the first two categories developed more than a year ago when tallying ESU abundance.

The new hatchery policy will appear soon, but not before the agency will announce de-listing decisions for eight ESUs (see story 2), according to NOAA Fisheries spokesman Gorman, who said his agency will comply with Judge Whaley's April 29 order and have the decisions ready within 30 days.

Meanwhile, an historic effort to update hatchery practices in the Columbia Basin is just picking up steam, led by staffers from the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. NOAA Fisheries has already said it plans to use the results as part of its salmon recovery program

Another huge effort to reform Puget Sound and coastal Washington hatcheries made headlines recently, weighing in with about 1,000 recommendations for improving things at 100 different facilities, including the call to actually shut some down. The $28 million, four-year project was originally pushed by ex-Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) and then by Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), and has gathered the support of federal, state and tribal agencies.

Barbara Cairns, executive director of Long Live The Kings, the group that facilitated the Puget Sound reform effort, said it began as a near-term attempt to help recover stocks and over the longer term to support sustainable fisheries.

NOAA's Lohn endorsed the reform effort as well. "NOAA Fisheries recognizes the Puget Sound and Coastal Washington Hatchery Reform Project is a model for hatchery reform and cooperative fishery management not just in the Pacific Northwest, but for the rest of the nation," he said.

Related Pages: Hatchery Reform Points to Coming Changes by Bill Rudolph, NW Fishletter, 5/11/4
Feds Ask More Time to Review Fish De-Listings by Bill Rudolph, NW Fishletter, 4/2/4

Bill Rudolph
Proposed Hathcery Policy Leaked, But is it Really News?
NW Fishletter, May 11, 2004

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