New Salmon Policy
by Patrick McGann
If a hatchery can produce fish that are genetically identical to wild fish, but inferior in other respects, should those be counted as wild? And when? As a smolt in a barge? At sea? In a gillnet? As it reaches spawning grounds? Or after it successfully spawns -- what? -- wild offspring?
These are just some of the complex questions fuzzing the brains of both salmon and dam advocates over a new policy shift coming out of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries division.
The proposal is based on a ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Michael Hogan of Eugene in 2001, that if hatchery fish cannot be distinguished from wild fish genetically, then hatchery fish should also be included in the population counts under the Endangered Species Act.
The ruling was limited to coastal coho in Oregon. The NOAA-fisheries proposal would apply it everywhere.
Immediately, wild fish advocates, environmentalists and their friends in Congress sounded the alarm. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said, "I feel like the people of the Northwest woke up to a bombshell this morning."
Some see it as a caving in "toward powerful interests that have resisted protection of the streams where wild salmon spawn," wrote Joel Connelly in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
It might be just that. But this policy might also be the only way to save both the salmon and the economy and culture of the inland Northwest.
The need to do both, and not chose one easily over the other, may escape those in Seattle and Portland, but not us upstream.
For years wild fish advocates have been criticizing hatcheries for producing genetically inferior salmon, and they have been right. Now that hatcheries are getting better at mimicking the genetics and genetic diversity of wild fish, things aren't so clear.
The Indians, at least the Columbia River tribes, support the proposal. "This causes us to be cautiously optimistic that we may be able to get some thoughtful use of hatchery fish for restoration," said Charles Hudson of the Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission.
"In no way do we see this as a fast track way out of the ESA listing."
That is the conundrum. If this proposal allows further depletion of threatened wild runs, not even the most thoughtful hatcheries can mimic and thus save them. Then as long as the ESA has teeth and there are lawyers, the dams will go.
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