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Proposal Considers Role of Hatcheries
in Rebuilding Fish Runs

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - May 28, 2004

NOAA Fisheries officials said today they will continue to weigh the risks that hatchery production poses to wild, naturally spawning West Coast salmon and steelhead, but that a proposed new policy does take into account developing science which indicates hatcheries may play a stronger role in the rebuilding of depressed natural stocks listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The proposed hatchery policy is the agency's response to a September 2001 U.S. District Court ruling that declared a Oregon Coastal coho listing illegal. The judge said the agency impermissibly excluded hatchery fish within the "evolutionarily significant unit" from its 1998 listing and therefore listed a stock aggregation that was not a ESA-defined species, subspecies or "designated population segment."

That decision prompted NOAA Fisheries to re-evaluate how the presence of hatchery fish will be considered when the agency evaluates salmon and steelhead stocks threatened with extinction.

The proposed policy released today (May 28) is the product of 2 years of work by the agency to spell out how it will treat hatchery fish in its deliberation. The policy's guidance was applied, along with other factors, in the making of proposed listing determinations that were also released today for 27 West Coast salmon and steelhead stocks.

The draft policy said "it is unlikely that this proposed change, as applied, would present an appreciably different threshold for the inclusion of hatchery stocks in an ESU compared to policy struck down by the court in the Alsea decision.." A 90-day public comment period now commences for the document. When the comment period ends the policy will be considered by the agency as a "final rule."

The proposed policy acknowledges that in the past that the agency has "focused on whether the naturally spawned fish are, by themselves, self-sustaining in their natural ecosystem over the long term" and that it "did not explicitly consider the contribution of the hatchery fish to overall viability of the ESU, or whether the presence of hatchery fish within the ESU might have the potential for reducing the risk of extinction of the ESU or the likelihood that the ESU would become endangered in the foreseeable future."

The new policy will take into account the genetic relatedness of hatchery populations in shaping "evolutionarily significant units" of salmon and steelhead stocks and decide if they might be a useful tool in rebuilding populations. A "moderate" level of genetic divergence will be allowed.

"Properly used in some instances, especially in short-term instances," hatchery fish may provide a boost for recovery efforts, according to Bob Lohn, NOAA's administrator for the Northwest Region.

"We're not saying that all of those fish are being treated equally" under the proposed policy, Lohn said. Rather they have been judged on a case-by-case basis within the status review process to see how, and if, they might provide benefits in rebuilding a threatened or endangered stock. He used as an example supplementation, which has shown that it can boost abundance of naturally spawning stocks short term. With supplementation, wild fish are captured and spawned in hatcheries. The juveniles produced are reared in hatcheries and then released in spawning areas and allowed to return as adults and spawn in the wild.

During a press conference announcing the release of the new documents Lohn and Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., NOAA administrator, stressed that the focus of the agency remains the same.

"This policy may not be used as a substitute for naturally spawning runs," Lohn said. "The foundation of salmon recovery rests on naturally spawning populations and their habitat."

NOAA Fisheries and the Bush administration are "committed to restoring natural spawning salmon and the ecosystems on which they depend," Lautenbacher said. "There is still much work to be done" to improve degraded habitat, reform hatchery management to lessen the risks they pose to wild salmon runs and improve survival down through the hydrosystem corridor for migrating Columbia River fish.

Lohn said he felt the proposed policy addressed Hogan's concerns. Some had interpreted that ruling to mean that all hatchery fish must be counted in evaluations of whether a salmon or steelhead stock required federal protection.

Lohn said that, rather than count, the judge wanted NOAA to "take into account" closely related stocks.

The judge, Michael R. Hogan, tossed out the Oregon Coast coho listing and "required that we take into consideration hatchery fish. That's what we are doing here," Lohn said.

The proposed hatchery policy is summarized in a list of five points by NOAA Fisheries. The new policy would supersede the interim policy that has held sway in listing determinations since 1993. Following are those five points as described in the 18-page document.

The proposed policy says that a "distinct population segment" (DPS) of a Pacific salmonid species is considered for listing if it meets two criteria: (a) it must be substantially reproductively isolated from other conspecific population units; and (b) it must represent an important component in the evolutionary legacy of the species."

Barry Espenson
Proposal Considers Role of Hatcheries in Rebuilding Fish Runs
Columbia Basin Bulletin, May 28, 2004

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