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Consider the Wild Coho

by Editors
Seattle Times - September 22, 2001

Years of expensive, hard-fought work to restore Northwest salmon habitat is in jeopardy if a federal court ruling on Oregon coastal coho salmon is not challenged.

A federal judge in Eugene said coho could not be declared threatened under the Endangered Species Act because hatchery-born fish had not been counted along with declining wild stocks.

Last week's tightly worded ruling said the National Marine Fisheries Service erred in 1998 when coho were listed and genetically identical hatchery fish were arbitrarily excluded.

The judge said when NMFS determined that hatchery spawned coho and naturally spawned coho were part of the same unique genetic population, the listing could not be refined by other distinctions.

That may be how it works out on paper, but it has practical consequences for saving and protecting salmon.

If the Bush administration does not appeal the ruling to a higher court, then a legislative fix is needed to clarify the language that tripped up the agency.

The ruling invites a dangerous retreat from habitat protection back to a simplistic, disastrous reliance on volume-oriented hatcheries. What's needed is a multi-discipline approach that includes hatcheries but not at the expense of restoring natural habitat. Judges work with the laws and words in front of them. Missing in the narrow parsing of legal language is the history and rationale of hatcheries.

Today's taxpayers spend billions to make up for ranks of Columbia River dams built without fish passages. Rivers and streams were dammed and diverted. Watersheds were logged, grazed and paved over.

No one worried about the effects because it was assumed losses could be made up with aggressive efforts to manufacture salmon by the millions.

That thinking affected other attitudes as well. Inland, upriver stocks were ignored. Fish were harvested at unsustainable rates in fresh water and the ocean.

Hatcheries did sustain some stocks that might have disappeared. But more is involved than genetic kinship. Hatchery fish are fed and have no predators. Once released, they compete for space and food with wild salmon and create even more survival pressure.

Hatcheries are being reformed from fish factories into a far subtler science that can target and supplement selected species. But lurking in the judge's ruling is an assumption that wholesale numbers of fish are all that matter; hatchery volume is enough.

If salmon habitat is not restored and protected, none of the fish will have a home to return to.

Salmon recovery and habitat restoration is expensive and politically vulnerable, especially when replacements can seemingly be mass produced.

To nurture and maintain healthy salmon populations, differences in behavior, potential for success and diversity need to be accounted for.

Consider the Wild Coho
Seattle Times Company, September 22, 2001

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