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Salmon to Remain Protected

by Jeff Barnard, Associated Press
Bellingham Herald, May 15, 2004

Bush administration says ruling on hatchery fish
won't change threatened, endangered status

GRANTS PASS, Ore. -- The Bush administration told Congress on Friday that all but one of the 26 runs of Pacific salmon listed as threatened or endangered species are likely to retain federal protection, despite a proposal to count hatchery fish as equivalent to wild ones.

Commerce Undersecretary Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., who oversees the federal agency responsible for restoring dwindling salmon populations, wrote in a letter to Congress that a final proposal will be ready in two weeks, but "we have preliminarily determined to propose relisting at least 25 of the 26 species."

When a proposal to count hatchery fish with wild in determining Endangered Species Act listings of salmon was recently leaked, it generated strong criticism from fisheries scientists, members of Congress and Northwest governors.

Fisheries biologists have long warned that hatcheries are one of the leading factors in the overall decline of Pacific salmon over the past century. Poor practices in the past have depleted the gene pool, and crowded conditions lead to rapid spread of disease. The young hatchery fish released into rivers compete with wild fish for food, but are less successful at surviving predators and other hazards to return as adults.

"From what I understand they were feeling a lot of heat over the way a one-page internal document was being interpreted," said Jim Myron, a natural resources adviser to Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, said from Salem. "I'm sure this is their attempt to set the record straight and clarify the confusion that existed."

NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency responsible for restoring dwindling populations of Pacific salmon, decided to overhaul its policy on hatchery operations and review all the salmon listings in 2001.

The decision came after U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan in Eugene dissolved the threatened species listing for Oregon coastal coho, based on a lawsuit brought by property rights advocates.

Hogan ruled that NOAA Fisheries must protect fish spawned in hatcheries if they were part of the same specific population as fish spawned in the wild.

Lautenbacher wrote that it was never the government's intention to substitute salmon hatcheries for naturally spawning salmon, but that hatcheries were playing an important role in restoring depleted runs.

"The central tenet of the hatchery policy is the conservation of naturally spawning salmon and the ecosystems upon which they depend," he wrote. "As our preliminary conclusions indicate, appropriate consideration of hatchery fish does not lead to wholesale de-listing of species as some are claiming.

"Equally erroneous is the suggestion our policy would allow the purposes of ESA to be satisfied by having all the salmon in a hatchery."

The letter came as U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., and others were circulating a letter demanding NOAA Fisheries hold off adopting a final hatchery policy until it went through scientific and public reviews.

NOAA Fisheries is scrambling to meet a May 28 deadline set by a federal judge to review listings of eight salmon species based on another lawsuit brought by the Building Industry Association of Washington. NOAA Fisheries hopes to release the new hatchery policy proposal at the same time, agency spokeswoman Janet Sears said from Seattle.

Sears said the one population taking longer to evaluate is mid-Columbia steelhead, which includes Oregon's famed Deschutes River steelhead. The delay was not related to the hatchery policy. Biologists were gathering more information.

Tim Harris, attorney for the Building Industry Association of Washington, said NOAA's decision was legally indefensible in light of the federal court ruling on Oregon coastal coho, and he would file another lawsuit if it stands up.

"I think they are pandering to the radical environmentalists who work for NOAA and have no interest in helping the Bush administration and its core constituents and following the law," Harris said from Olympia. "The bottom line fact is, what is a species. Hatchery and naturally spawning fish are the same species."

Jeff Barnard, Associated Press
Salmon to Remain Protected
Bellingham Herald, May 15, 2004

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