Judge: Wild Salmon Are Key to Protectionsby Christopher Dunagan
Kitsap Sun, June 13, 2007
Wild salmon, not hatchery salmon, are all that matter when it comes to determining whether a species should be listed as "threatened" or "endangered," a judge has ruled.
The ruling swings the pendulum back from a previous ruling by a different judge, who concluded that hatchery salmon must be considered alongside wild salmon when listing a species under the Endangered Species Act.
The latest decision is especially at odds with the contention of business and farming groups, which say wild and hatchery salmon are essentially the same under the Endangered Species Act. Because of the large number of hatchery fish, few stocks even qualify for listing, they argue.
The immediate effect of the latest decision, by U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour, is to change the listing for steelhead in the upper Columbia River system from "threatened" to "endangered." That reverses a 2005 "downlisting" to "threatened" by the National Marine Fisheries Service. The agency revised its listing policy following the previous ruling by U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan in the case commonly called Alsea.
An endangered species is one at high risk of extinction, while a threatened species is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future.
Whether the fisheries service will revise its policy again or appeal the latest decision is yet to be seen.
"Of course we're disappointed with the ruling," said NMFS spokesman Brian Gorman. "It's not immediately clear what it means."
Agency staff need time to review the 40-page ruling, Gorman said.
The National Marine Fisheries Service chose not to appeal Hogan's decision, which said the Endangered Species Act does not allow the government to distinguish categories below "species," "subspecies" or "distinct population segment." If wild fish are listed, then hatchery fish must be, too, the judge said.
The fisheries service rewrote its listing policy to include both hatchery and wild fish together, with a special emphasis on the survival of wild salmon. When examining Columbia River steelhead, the agency decided to change the designation from "endangered" to "threatened" based largely on the presence of hatchery fish.
Coughenour said wild salmon contain genetic characteristics that help them survive through environmental challenges. On the other hand, hatchery fish, reared under artificial conditions, lose those characteristics and may even threaten the survival of wild salmon through competition and other factors.
The listing policy of the National Marine Fisheries Service is "internally contradictory," the judge said, because it isn't clear whether it is designed to protect hatchery and wild fish together or to promote "self-sustaining populations" of salmon without the need for artificial propagation. The latter is the essence of the Endangered Species Act, he added.
Coughenour recognized that his ruling may be in conflict with Hogan's.
"To the extent that this court's order can be read to conflict with Alsea, perhaps this will have the happy result of instigating needed appellate review," Coughenour wrote.
Organizations whose views were rejected in the case say they are ready to appeal.
"I'm stunned, frankly," said John Stuhlmiller, spokesman for the Washington State Farm Bureau. "How can you possibly not consider the influence of hatchery fish, when sometimes the resident stocks don't even exist?"
Other business groups include the Building Industry Association of Washington, Coalition for Idaho Water and Idaho Water Users Association.
Environmental groups are Trout Unlimited, American Rivers, Pacific Rivers Council, Wild Steelhead Coalition, Native Fish Society, Sierra Club and Federation of Fly Fishers.
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