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What Happens When Fish Science Makes No Sense?

by Patrick McGann
Lewiston Tribune, October 4, 2004

The sport fishers who attended a public meeting Thursday to discuss the inclusion of hatchery fish along with wild fish in Endangered Species Act calculations had it exactly right.

"I'm not sure we know what the hell we are doing," said Ray Collard, here fishing from Pocatello.

Pilots would recognize this situation right away. A federal judge's ruling and a subsequent fisheries policy change has put us in the biological equivalent of visual flight into instrument meteorological conditions. In other words, we're in the clouds.

The science may be good, but it doesn't make sense.

It started with a federal court ruling in Oregon when Judge Michael Hogan ruled that federal fishery managers made a mistake by lumping both naturally spawning coho and hatchery coho in the same management population but then protected only wild fish.

The judge ruled that if genetically similar, either both or neither hatchery or wild fish must be protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Then National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries agreed with the ruling and changed its policy coastwide, affecting 26 salmon and steelhead populations, including salmon and steelhead and even some rainbow trout in the Snake and Clearwater rivers.

Under a microscope, a 4-year-old 2-pound rainbow trout could be nearly identical to a 4-year-old 20-pound steelhead. But in a drift boat on the river -- the difference is more noticeable.

And that's the rub.

Since the first comprehensive chinook studies in the mid-1980s from the southern Oregon coast showing a conflict between wild and hatchery salmon, hatcheries have been the epicenter in a ferocious wild-vs.-hatchery debate.

Then came the fish population implosions and ESA listings of the 1990s. Fish genetics became everyday fare for irrigators, grain and wood bargers, river ports, electric users, environmentalists, not just people who fish.

There's much at stake. NOAA Fisheries was here to take comments and to explain that this new policy wouldn't change things much.

Maybe so.

Almost exactly half of all serious anglers will swear they can tell a difference between hatchery steelhead or salmon and a wild one even with an intact adipose fin. Rivers of rye and ales, pale and stout, have flowed under that debate.

But dam-bound rainbow trout are not steelhead, and hatchery fish are not wild fish. We don't need a DNA swab and a microscope or a federal judge to tell us that.

"We need to be cautious," said Clarkston angler John Claasen. Yep, and dubious.

Patrick McGann
What Happens When Fish Science Makes No Sense?
Lewiston Tribune, October 4, 2004

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