Salmon Debate Keys on
by Jennifer Sandmann, Times-News writer
BOISE -- In the salmon debate, what's the big difference between wild fish and hatchery fish?
Genetic diversity and species viability, some say.
Nothing substantial, say others opposed to how the Endangered Species Act has been applied to the salmon.
The issue was the focus of the Idaho Water Users Association's 20th annual water law seminar that concluded Friday at the DoubleTree Hotel Riverside in Boise.
And it's an issue being decided in the courts. A federal case in Oregon concluded that hatchery coho salmon should be counted when considering listing fish under the Endangered Species Act. The decision by U.S. District Judge Michael R. Hogan is on appeal before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Oregon case grew from the public's discovery that Oregon fish managers were clubbing to death migrating hatchery-bred coho salmon.
Most of the chinook and steelhead salmon swimming into central Idaho via the Snake River below Hells Canyon Dam are hatchery fish. Idaho Power Co. and the federal government both have introduced hatchery fish to make up for losses in wild salmon runs. And more hatchery programs are in development, including a program by the Nez Perce Tribe designed to produce a more resilient stock than those already being raised.
While the hatchery versus wild fish appeal is pending, the Coalition for Idaho Water, a powerful group of irrigation and business interests, has filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the federal government over that issue and others involving Upper Snake River water. The coalition is demanding federal agencies count hatchery fish when reviewing the status of salmon and steelhead listed as threatened or endangered.
The coalition said the potential lawsuit is part of an aggressive strategy to protect Idaho water. It doesn't want the Upper Snake River incorporated into the Columbia River Basin salmon recovery plan.
The increased number of returning fish in 2001 and 2002 correlates with the number of hatchery fish produced, stream conditions during the out-migration years in the late 1990s, and ocean conditions, said Sharon Kiefer, anadromous fisheries manager with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
The strongest fish numbers beyond Lower Granite Dam -- the last of four federal dams fish must pass on the Lower Snake River on their trip back to Idaho -- have been seen in spring chinook salmon and steelhead.
The numbers of wild sockeye salmon that return to Redfish Lake near Stanley is still small. About 16 have returned since 1991, Kiefer said. There have been 314 hatchery sockeye return since 1999.
Kaitlin Lovell, an Oregon attorney with Trout Unlimited, made the case for the wild salmon population that she said is barely holding on. Of the millions of hatchery fish released into the river system, while the numbers returning are in the thousands, it's still only a small portion of the total. Wild fish are genetically programmed for the wild. Hatchery fish are raised in a controlled, dense environment before they are released.
But Ernest Brannon with the Center for Salmonid and Freshwater Species at Risk at the University of Idaho said not counting hatchery fish is a misapplication of the Endangered Species Act. Hatcheries were developed to mitigate for the effects the hydropower system has on wild salmon. Whether bred in a hatchery or raised in the wild, the fish are the same species, Brannon said.
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