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New Bush Fish Policy Reviving Old Debates

by Mark Engler, Freelance Writer
Capital Press, May 7, 2004

A Bush administration proposal that federal biologists consider both hatchery and naturally spawning fish when counting salmon and steelhead in determining the health of particular runs has renewed the debate over fish management in the West.

An advance copy of the yet-to-be-adopted policy indicates the administration will direct federal agencies to begin tabulating hatchery produced fish if they're determined "genetically no more than moderately divergent" from their wild counterparts in a particular Evolutionarily Significant Unit as described under the Endangered Species Act.

The shift represents the federal government's attempt to reconcile its regulations with the 2001 Alsea Valley Alliance v. Evans case in which U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan ruled it unlawful for the federal government to declare naturally spawned salmon endangered and ignore hatchery fish of the same species returning to the same stream or river.

That ruling was upheld on appeal earlier this year.

"It sounds like we're now moving in the right direction," said Dean Boyer, spokesman for the Washington Farm Bureau.

If the new guidelines result in the de-listing of several species of anadromous fish in the Northwest it'll be something of a vindication for agriculture, timber and real estate development groups who have long reasoned that hatchery and wild fish of the same genetic stocks are all "real fish," and should be treated as such under the law, said Boyer.

Mandated stream buffers have been the most costly and damaging effects of Endangered Species Act listings of salmon and steelhead for Northwest farmers and ranchers, he said.

"One-size-fits-all buffers are not necessary or justified by science, and are not justified by the reality that most species of salmon and steelhead are not actually in danger of going extinct," said Boyer. "Yet we have faced this constant pressure from state agencies and environmental groups clamoring for extensive and increasing buffers along salmon-bearing waterways as the only way to restore habitat leading to healthy runs."

Boyer said the ESA "sledgehammer" has become a rather useless tool, and he predicted that tossing it aside would lead to "a more cooperative working relationships between farmers, rural property owners, state agencies and conservation groups" for protecting fish.

"Most successful conservation and restoration projects that have actually been completed have been cooperative ventures between property owners and conservation groups," said Boyer. "But state and federal agencies have been more interested in promulgating rules and regulations, and the environmental groups have been more interested in filing lawsuits than they've been in actually getting on-the-ground restoration projects done

"We think de-listing the salmon would actually be the best thing not just for farmers, but for the fish, too," he said.

Environmentalists and native fish advocates disagree.

They see the administration move as an election-year attempt to circumvent the ESA and curry favor with farmers and ranchers, and if the plan goes forward, they say it will damage fish recovery.

"The Bush administration pushed salmon conservation back to the 1800s with its proposal to include hatchery salmon along with wild salmon to determine the health of populations and their protection under federal law," according to a press release issued by the Portland-based Native Fish Society.

Kaitlin Lovell, a salmon policy specialist with Trout Unlimited, said that while her group isn't opposed to hatcheries in principle, the group's biggest fear is that an order to count hatchery fish along with natural spawners will remove the "motivation for hatchery reform."

"We have 100 years of bad practices that need to be changed," she said. "The purpose of the ESA is to protect species in their natural habitat ˆ and now you're calling concrete pens ˆénatural habitat?' Are you going to call a hatchery raceway ˆécritical habitat?'"

"Hatchery fish will probably always be less productive, in terms of natural reproductive success in a stream environment than wild fish," added Bill Bakke, executive director for the Native Fish Society. "We aren't even close to understanding what those factors are in order to change our hatchery protocol to improve the reproductive success of these hatchery fish."

The Pacific Legal Foundation litigator who successfully argued the original Alsea Valley case and the appeal, Bellevue, Wash.-based attorney Russ Brooks, said the real perpetrators of a "political ploy" currently are environmental groups agitating against any alterations to ESA policy that might better balance property rights with fish protection.

"This change in administration policy is a surprise to no one, and those feigning surprise are being disingenuous. The administration announced two and a half years ago that a new policy would be issued to comply with the Alsea decision," said Brooks. He added that he believes the federal government and fish groups have been the ones guilty of employing "slippery salmon science" while landowners "are still being forced to comply with burdensome ESA-required land-use regulations to protect fish that should never have been listed under the ESA in the first place."

Ed Bowles, director of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Fish Division, said on Tuesday that he wouldn't comment on changes to federal policy without seeing a more specific proposal than what's currently available.

However, regardless of what happens with ESA listings, the department is committed to producing hatchery fish that do not harm naturally spawning salmon and steelhead, and also to studying how best to supplement wild fish with those bred in hatcheries, he said.

"Oregon is very interested in moving aggressively toward finding out what is the most responsible way to utilize the hatchery tool, not just for fisheries, but also for conservation of naturally producing stocks," he said.

Key in the development of successful and widely accepted policy is getting beyond "good fish-bad fish" arguments, said Bowles: "It certainly isn't a situation where it's all or none; our policies are aimed at recognizing the importance of both hatchery and wild fish, and that hatchery fish should never come at the expense of wild fish."

At a luncheon speech hosted by an environmental group in Portland this week, Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski said he's not convinced counting hatchery fish along with natural spawners is a good idea, or an appropriate course of action.

"I don't think that's the answer to the problem," Kulongoski said. "I do not think just combining - or, I should say, bleeding in the hatchery fish into our native stock - is the long-term approach to preserving adequate fisheries.

"One of the things I think this state has been focused on in trying to preserve the native runs is more than just the fish: It's the restoration of water quality, restoration of stream banks and improving the general quality of the watershed," he said.

Mark Engler, Freelance Writer
New Bush Fish Policy Reviving Old Debates
Capital Press, May 7, 2004

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