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Situation Calls for Integrated Strategies

by Kurt Beardslee, Guest Columnist
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 9, 2006

At the "Salmon 2100 Conference" last month in Portland, James Connaughton, the chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, gave an important speech on salmon recovery, announcing administration intentions to reduce the impacts from harvest and hatcheries on salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Fishing interests and some of their allies in the conservation community reacted strongly and negatively.

They say, as they have always said, that harvest and hatcheries are tiny factors in salmon declines. They accused the administration of diverting attention from what they call the real threats to salmon, most specifically the Columbia River hydroelectric system.

Unfortunately, they are about half right but the full story is much more complex. In fact, harvest and hatchery activities are imposing significant harmful impacts on ESA-listed salmon populations, impacts that are not being adequately addressed.

Connaughton's speech could be paraphrased: "Fixing dams is very expensive. We have spent and spent, and it has worked, if not completely. But before we spend a lot more, let's make changes in harvest and hatcheries instead."

Taken altogether, that's a bad idea. We have not done nearly enough to reform the dam system or protect and recover habitat. We must do more on those fronts, not less. But the big problem is not that the administration is saying anything about harvest and hatcheries; it's that it isn't saying enough.

Connaughton rather overstated the improvements in Columbia Basin dam management. That's just one reason to suspect he may have overstated what the administration intends to do about harvest and hatcheries. A close reading of the speech reveals plenty of qualification and hedging. His model hatchery-reform process has been ongoing in Puget Sound since 1999, and has so far brought very little actual change.

Independent researchers and review panels consistently have issued warnings about current hatchery and harvest management. The Recovery Science Review Panel, convened by NOAA Fisheries to evaluate salmon-recovery management under the ESA, has said current harvest-management "demean(s) scientific common sense," and that current harvest levels on listed populations are "biologically unsustainable." The federally appointed Independent Scientific Advisory Board has reported that hatcheries are "almost certainly" harming listed fish and impeding recovery.

The responsible agencies have dropped that ball. But a vague pledge to do an inadequate job addressing harvest and hatcheries while cutting back on an already inadequate job on habitat and hydro is not the answer.

On the other hand, an either-or choice between dams or harvest is just as inadequate. Why should reforming fisheries management come at the expense of protecting and recovering habitat function? Let's push for much more on dams and habitat, and much more on harvest and hatcheries. The plain and powerful truth is that regarding salmon recovery, the Bush administration isn't doing enough anywhere, about anything.

In January, Washington Trout joined the Salmon Spawning and Recovery Alliance in notifying NOAA Fisheries that we intend to file suit under the ESA over fishing in Puget Sound. Put simply, we allege that too many threatened Puget Sound chinook are being caught. But Washington Trout will never consider better fisheries management a substitute for improved habitat conditions. The region can and must develop integrated strategies to address all the factors limiting salmon productivity, whether those factors are based in harvest, hatcheries, habitat or hydro.

Kurt Beardslee is the executive director at Washington Trout, a non-profit organization dedicated to the recovery and conservation of Washington's wild-fish ecosystems.
Situation Calls for Integrated Strategies
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 9, 2006

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