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Commentaries and editorials

Salmon Jeopardized by Method Used
in Run Count, Scientists say

by Glen Martin
San Francisco Chronicle, March 26, 2004

U.S. agency ignores suggestion not to mix hatchery and wild fish in calculation

In the latest manifestation of an intensifying conflict between the Bush administration and the science community, a panel of biologists has charged that a U.S. agency decision to reject its findings on West Coast wild salmon threatens the fish with extinction.

At issue is whether salmon raised at government hatcheries should be counted as wild salmon. Currently, the National Marine Fisheries Service includes hatchery fish in its general counts but excludes them when considering salmon runs for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act.

In September, Judge Michael Hogan of the U.S. District Court in Eugene, Ore., ruled that the federal regulations for counting fish are unworkable. He said hatchery-reared salmon should be included with wild salmon in determining the size of a given salmon run.

Because the numbers of hatchery fish are large on many rivers that support small populations of wild fish, the ruling could result in the delisting of many runs currently considered endangered. Since the ruling, there have been about 15 petitions from landowners and timber companies to delist various salmon populations.

NMFS has announced it will not appeal Hogan's decision and has been drafting new criteria to conform to the ruling.

That move has rankled members of the agency's Recovery Science Review Panel, a federally authorized, independent board of six fisheries biologists and ecologists. The panel recommended that NMFS respond to the judge's ruling by excluding hatchery fish from its general fish counts, but the agency rejected the recommendation.

In a paper published today in the journal Science, the six panel members warn that several runs of coho and chinook salmon ultimately face extinction if they are removed from protection under the endangered-species law.

"Pacific salmon are in danger of being eliminated to make way for development," said Robert Paine, a professor of ecology at the University of Washington and the chairman of the panel.

"We should not open the legal door to maintaining salmon only in hatcheries," he said. "The science is clear and unambiguous. As they are currently operated, hatcheries ... cannot protect wild stocks."

Ransom Myers, lead author of the report and a fisheries biologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, said hatcheries have been discredited as a means of sustaining salmon populations.

"One hundred years of hatcheries haven't brought wild salmon back to Maine," he said. "Once we lose the wild populations of salmon and the natural habitats that support them, we will never get them back."

Todd Ungerecht, a senior policy adviser for NMFS, said the panel members were entitled to their opinions, "but it must be remembered that is what they are -- opinions. There is a whole other body of scientists that don't agree with their determination that hatcheries are all bad."

NMFS rejected the panel's findings, saying they were inappropriate because they strayed from scientific inquiry to policy recommendations, said Usha Varanasi, director of the northwest fisheries science center for NMFS.

"We are trying to keep the science and policy separate -- we need to make sure the science stays science,'' Varanasi said. "There are different opinions and a great deal of uncertainty in science. These are long-term issues, and we need long-term inquiry and experiments to come as close to the facts as possible."

But Paine said the root causes of the decline of salmon in the West are clear -- particularly to panel members, who are all acknowledged experts in fisheries science. "Our interest isn't in political fallout, but in presenting constructive advice to NMFS -- whether they want it or not," he said.

From a larger perspective, the conflict emphasizes the growing alienation between Bush administration policy makers and many scientists. Last month, 62 top scientists, including a dozen Nobel laureates, signed a joint statement denouncing the administration for "misrepresenting and suppressing scientific knowledge for political purposes."

Glen Martin
Salmon Jeopardized by Method Used in Run Count, Scientists say
San Francisco Chronicle, March 26, 2004

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