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U.S. Rule Change
Could Weaken Salmon Protections

by Chris Stetkiewicz, Reuters
Environmental News Network, May 4, 2004

SEATTLE -- A Bush administration plan to revise protections for endangered Northwest U.S. salmon drew praise from farmers and industry groups, but environmentalists and fishing advocates said future salmon runs would be gutted.

Under the plan, the National Marine Fisheries Service would count salmon raised in hatchery tanks as well as wild fish when determining a species' population, according to excerpts of a draft report of the agency's plan.

A final version is due in June. The plan could alter the fate of some of the 27 species of protected migratory fish if the change in the counting procedure raises population levels beyond thresholds for protection.

"The result will be delisting of some species of salmon from the Endangered Species Act," said Jan Hasselman, Seattle counsel for the National Wildlife Federation. "The protections provided for those species and the funding devoted to their protection and recovery evaporates immediately."

Salmon protection has triggered broad changes in Washington state, Oregon, and Idaho, including reduced irrigation to farmers, restrictions on logging and mining, and higher hydroelectric rates from dams forced to reserve water to help fish migrate.

The region's iconic fish is prized for food, sport fishing, and the sheer spectacle of its annual return to native streams from the Pacific Ocean. The salmon also support dwindling populations of orcas, or killer whales, and other predators and scavengers.

But plenty of people consider the salmon's endangered status a major nuisance.

"I applaud the people that are trying to save species that are endangered," said Gretchen Borck, a lobbyist with the Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG). "But it might be good that we don't have dinosaurs now. We've gotten oil from the dinosaurs. If we had preserved the dinosaur, we wouldn't have that oil."

The 5,000 farmers WAWG represents often feel they are an endangered species, Borck says, much like Northwest loggers felt they were sacrificed to protect the threatened Northern spotted owl in 1990.

"Hopefully this will get us a breather from environmental lawsuits," Borck said. "We have compromised a lot. We have given up acreage, established habitat, and stream buffers. We've spent our own money trying to find new best practices."

Builders have also complained about restrictions on home building near salmon habitat, and other industrial polluters, including mining companies, have had to adjust. But salmon also support thousands of jobs in commercial and sport fishing.

"How about the shattered tens of thousands of families that used to rely on salmon fishing," Hasselman said. "Their livelihoods are just as important as the farmers'."

Salmon advocates argue that hatchery fish, though bred from wild stocks, are less able to survive in the wild and may produce offspring more adapted to living in concrete tanks than the Pacific Ocean. Hatchery fish also mask damage to rivers and wildlife conditions in general, environmentalists argue, the same way pandas in zoos give no indication of the health of their natural habitat.

"As the fish disappear, it shows the ecosystem is increasingly threatened," Hasselman said.

Critics of salmon protection see no genetic distinction between wild and fishery salmon and little benefit to costly measures needed to restore truly wild salmon runs.

"Will we continue to use hatchery fish? I think we will," said Borck. "Will we ever have the salmon that Lewis and Clark described, being able to walk across the river on their backs? Probably not."

Chris Stetkiewicz, Reuters
U.S. Rule Change Could Weaken Salmon Protections
Environmental News Network, May 4, 2004

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