Species Won't Lose Federal Protectionby Erik Robinson, Staff Writer
The Columbian, May 28, 2004
No salmon or steelhead will lose protection under the Endangered Species Act, despite a Bush administration policy equating wild fish with their hatchery-raised cousins.
"There will be no stocks de-listed," said Brian Gorman, spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle, on Thursday.
The hatchery policy, due to be officially released today but leaked to the press in draft form last month, raised fears among environmental groups that it would make it easier to strip endangered-species status from salmon runs bolstered by ample numbers of hatchery-raised fish.
The fisheries service is reassessing all 26 stocks of salmon and steelhead currently listed as threatened or endangered in light of its new hatchery policy. The Bush administration has spent the past 21/2 years working on a new policy to comply with a landmark federal court ruling in 2001.
U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan ruled the government erred by lumping hatchery and naturally spawning salmon together in a single group, then giving threatened species protection only to the wild fish. The case was filed by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a property-rights organization.
"While the court specifically told us we had to account for hatchery fish, it didn't tell us how we had to do that accounting," Gorman said. "We've been struggling with that for some time."
Russell Brooks, the attorney who litigated the case, has already vowed to haul the administration back into court if it refuses to de-list salmon.
Bob Lohn, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, has made it clear the service has no intention of de-listing imperiled runs of wild salmon simply by ramping up hatchery production.
Pumping out massive quantities of hatchery-raised smolts isn't enough to recover species, he said.
Lohn said the agency will also consider a species' ability to reproduce itself, its genetic diversity and a geographical distribution wide enough to guarantee its future existence.
One fisheries scientist described his own Machiavellian view of the administration's maneuvering, saying the new policy lays the foundation for a legal challenge by irrigators, energy companies and developers whose activities have been restricted to protect wild salmon.
"It seems to me this is a rather cheap way out of meeting their goals and not taking any of the blame," said Robert Paine, a salmon researcher at the University of Washington, during a teleconference with Northwest reporters earlier this week.
Patti Goldman, an attorney for Earthjustice in Seattle, called the decision not to de-list salmon now "extremely good news." The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied Earthjustice's appeal of the Hogan decision earlier this year, although Goldman vowed to challenge any future de-listings in court.
"Our view all along has been that the Endangered Species Act protects wild salmon in their natural habitat," she said. "It would be blatantly illegal to de-list wild salmon based on a large number of hatchery fish."
In the past, the fisheries service has maintained there are practical and scientific reasons for protecting wild fish but not their hatchery-raised cousins.
Biologists worry that fish raised in hatcheries will gradually lose the characteristics they developed over generations to adapt to specific rivers and streams, thus threatening their long-term survival. In the Columbia River basin, overfishing and dramatic habitat changes over the past century have driven the number of returning spawners from as many as 16 million to barely 3 million and most of those come from hatcheries.
Federal officials announced earlier this month that they were probably going to retain Endangered Species Act protections for 25 of 26 listed stocks on the West Coast.
Mid-Columbia steelhead was the only stock still under consideration for de-listing.
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