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Wild Salmon Still Endangered

by Editorial Board
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - December 30, 2001

In September, a federal judge in Oregon issued an ominous ruling -- one hailed by property rights advocates -- that blurred the legal distinction between hatchery salmon and wild salmon.

Then early this month, the Independent Science Advisory Board concluded that the Northwest's four highly touted plans for restoring Columbia Basin salmon runs probably won't succeed.

And a panel of scientists appointed by the National Marine Fisheries Service found that NMFS is allowing the state of Washington and tribal fisheries to harvest too many endangered wild salmon.

None of this is good news for wild salmon recovery. Each of these developments raises worrisome suggestions that the billions of dollars being spent to restore the Pacific Northwest's wild salmon runs may be spent in vain.

To confuse matters further, this year the largest salmon runs since 1938 came up the Columbia River. At Bonneville Dam, for example, spring chinook came in at 417,000 compared with the biologists' prediction of 333,700; the old record was 280,400. In 1995, only 10,200 came past that dam.

What's going on here?

A big return of mostly hatchery fish, not a sudden dramatic resurgence of wild ones.

Hatchery fish have proven adept at reproducing in large numbers -- especially when sufficient water is made available for juveniles to migrate to sea (as was the case for this year's returning runs), and when ocean conditions are favorable, as also was the case.

But what matters most is the return rate for wild fish. That's what the expenditure of money and effort is about.

It's hard to tell where U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan's ruling that equated hatchery fish with their endangered wild cousins might lead. But supporters who wrongly think a fish is a fish applaud it. He ruled that fish managers cannot continue to club to death hatchery fish in an attempt to spare wild ones; they both must be protected. Ironically, hatchery fish are being clubbed to death because they have proven too successful and thus threaten wild fish.

While the judge also threw out endangered species listings for Oregon coastal Coho, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals stayed that ruling. But the NMFS is now revisiting the biological fitness of hatchery fish, which have heretofore been treated as inferior goods.

Critics rightly worry that Hogan's ruling sets in motion a legal precedent that may end by allowing hatchery-raised fish to be counted as wild ones. That would mask the decline of wild fish and eventually might result in removing Endangered Species Act listings from vanishing wild fish; hatchery fish would become accepted substitutes for purposes of the ESA.

But wild fish are prized by biologists for their genetic variety -- absent in hatchery fish -- that has allowed them to adapt and survive for millennia. So the specter of having hatchery fish overwhelm and drive out wild fish haunts biologists, and for good reason. Once that genetic diversity is lost, it's gone forever.

"Theoretically, this (ruling) could affect all listings" of endangered or threatened salmon in the Northwest, said NMFS spokesman Brian Gorman.

If so, it would be folly.

"If hatchery fish can have the (Endangered Species) Act protection, it's as if we'd settle for lions in zoos and say it's the same as lions in the Serengeti," said Seattle attorney Patti Goldman.

Hatcheries can play a useful role in providing fish, but the trick is to operate them so they don't wipe out the genetically vital wild stocks.

And as for the scientists' conclusion that NMFS was allowing the state and tribes to harvest too many endangered fish?

Jeff Koenings, of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife contends that his agency -- which historically has been criticized for setting high harvest quotas -- minimizes "as much as we can the impact on wild stocks."

But the scientists said they were "somewhat mystified concerning the scientific justification for current allowable harvests."

That should prompt harvesting reforms.

So should the gloomy assessment of the four cornerstone salmon-recovery plans.

The NMFS's 2000 Biological Opinion, the multiagency All-H Paper, the Northwest Power Planning Council's fish and wildlife plan and a plan proposed by the governors of Washington, Idaho, Montana and Oregon are either too vague or lack clear institutional arrangements for carrying them out, the panel warned.

It would greatly improve chances of salmon recovery if these warnings don't fall on deaf ears.

Editorial Board
Wild Salmon Still Endangered
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 30, 2001

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