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NMFS Agrees to Investigate 'Wild Only' Listing Proposals

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - July 26, 2002

The National Marine Fisheries Service on Thursday announced it would officially consider petitions asking that the agency define and list only the "wild" fish for 15 separate Pacific salmon and steelhead stocks, forgoing ESA protection for hatchery fish in the same waters.

The petitions were filed April 29 by a coalition of 17 national, regional and local conservation groups.

The NMFS announcement follows NMFS' release Wednesday of a draft policy that would seek Endangered Species Act protections for wild salmon stocks in their natural habitats even if it means hatchery fish in the same waters must be protected as well.

The July 25 Federal Register notice notes that the agency "received two petitions from Trout Unlimited and several co-petitioners (hereafter, Trout Unlimited petitions) to redefine and list a total of 15 ESUs currently listed as threatened or endangered." One petition asks that the threatened Oregon coast coho "evolutionarily significant unit" be defined as including only naturally spawned fish and their progeny -- exclusive of all hatchery fish -- and to list it as threatened. The other petition seeks to define 14 ESUs as including only natural fish, and to list these ESUs as threatened or endangered.

The three-month "finding" released by NMFS this week says the "Trout Unlimited petitions present substantial scientific and commercial information indicating that the petitioned actions may be warranted." The agency is supposed to produce within a year of the petition filings a final finding that either accepts or rejects the "wild only" listing definition proposal. An acceptance would launch official rulemaking that would involve public hearings.

"NMFS has already committed to conducting status review updates for the 16 Pacific salmon and steelhead ESUs addressed in the CCFA (a separate petition asking that the Central California coast coho salmon be delisted) and Trout Unlimited petitions, as well as for nine other ESUs," according to the Federal Register notice. "The agency is also in the process of clarifying its policy on how it considers hatchery populations in making ESA listing determinations. NMFS will consider the information presented and the issues raised by these petitions in the course of revising its listing policy and conducting the coastwide status review updates."

Trout Unlimited and the others signing the petitions say the hatchery policy "working draft" released Wednesday by NMFS "spells out clearly that hatchery fish when mingled with wild fish - especially severely depleted wild populations - can further harm the wild populations. In those cases, the policy could recommend changes in listing status and/or hatchery operation."

"The line that science delineates so clearly between wild stocks and hatchery fish appears to be getting clearer by statute now as well," said Kaitlin Lovell of Trout Unlimited. "We're hopeful that NMFS' indictments yesterday of the harm that can come from mixing hatchery and wild fish coupled with their acceptance of these petitions today indicates there's a policy taking shape that is finally serious about wild fish protection."

The petitions, like similar actions over the past 10 months, rippled from a Sept. 10 order issued by Oregon U.S. District Court Judge, Michael R. Hogan. It called the NMFS' 1998 listing of Oregon coastal coho "arbitrary and capricious" and said the NMFS disobeyed ESA directives when it designated both hatchery and naturally spawning coastal coho as part of an "evolutionarily significant unit," then declined to include the hatchery population in the listing.

The "Hogan decision" has been stayed while it is weighed in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. But Hogan's order immediately prompted six petitions last fall asking that West Coast fish stocks be removed from the federal endangered species list. The NMFS in February concluded that five of six delisting petitions it received last year contained "substantial scientific and commercial information to suggest" that 14 of the 15 Pacific salmon and steelhead stocks addressed in the petitions could warrant removal from species list.

All say they are using the Hogan order as a precedent -- the conservation groups to secure exclusive protection for wild fish and the delisting petitions saying that if hatchery populations were counted in listing determinations, most of the listings would be repealed.

"Judge Hogan's ruling gave us a legal foothold to bring ESA protections for wild fish in this region up to date with the latest science," Lovell said in announcing the filing of the petition three months ago. "It's the wild fish that need protection, and the science increasingly shows that one thing they need protection from is hatchery fish."

The conservation groups said the 15 wild stocks being petitioned have and continue to face significant threats from many directions which, individually or in combination, threaten the survival of the stock. Those threats include predation, competition and genetic disruption from interactions with hatchery fish, destruction and modification of habitat from logging and agriculture, urbanization, dams, stream channelization and water withdrawals, and pollution from mining and industry.

The groups say the "wild-only" listings would result in no appreciable change in the management of the petitioned wild stocks, but could change management practices for hatchery-born fish.

The petitioned stocks include: wild Snake River spring and summer chinook, wild Snake fall chinook, wild Puget Sound chinook, wild lower Columbia River chinook, wild upper Willamette River chinook, wild upper Columbia chinook, wild southern Oregon/northern California coho, wild Columbia chum, wild Hood Canal summer-run chum, wild upper Columbia steelhead, wild Snake basin steelhead, wild lower Columbia steelhead, and wild mid-Columbia steelhead.

The groups signed on the petitions include Trout Unlimited, Oregon Council of TU, Washington Council of TU, California Council of TU, Idaho Council of TU, Oregon Trout, Washington Trout, Native Fish Society, Oregon Council of Federation of Flyfishers, Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman's Associations/ Institute for Fisheries Resources, Oregon Natural Resources Council, Save Our Wild Salmon, American Rivers, Audubon Society of Portland, National Wildlife Federation, and Siskiyou Regional Education Project.

Related Links:
The draft policy is posted at
A Move to Protect Wild Salmon Disappoints Property-Rights Advocates, by Robert McClure, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Plan Protects Salmon as Long as Wild Stocks Struggle, by Jonathan Brinckman, The Oregonian
New Policy may Complicate Seasons by Eric Barker, Lewiston Tribune

Barry Espenson
NMFS Agrees to Investigate 'Wild Only' Listing Proposals
Columbia Basin Bulletin, July 26, 2002

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