Hatcheries Won't Save Salmonby Editors
The Oregonian, September 23, 2001
Sending ripples across every salmon stream on the West Coast, a federal judge in Eugene has blurred crucial distinctions between hatchery-born and wild salmon and put in doubt federal protections for wild fish everywhere.
U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan ruled Sept. 12 that the National Marine Fisheries Service should have taken into account hatchery-born fish when it decided to list wild Oregon coastal coho salmon as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The ruling has prompted the fisheries service to revoke federal protection for wild coho in dozens of coastal rivers in Oregon. Though state protections of coho remain in place, Hogan's ruling undermines salmon and steelhead recovery efforts from Puget Sound to the Columbia River to Northern California.
The judge concluded it was arbitrary and improper for the federal government to recognize that hatchery and wild coho in coastal rivers were part of the same "evolutionary significant unit" of fish, but fail to count or extend protections to hatchery fish when determining that wild coho should be protected by the Endangered Species Act.
While Hogan's ruling is a narrow one, it aids and abets those who argue, against overwhelming scientific evidence and more than a century of bitter evidence, that we don't need to restore habitat and rebuild wild fish runs, that hatcheries can just turn out more fish.
This is the same old, discredited claim put forth by the dam-builders and polluters, and by those who caught and killed the last of the wild salmon on East Coast rivers. By now, we know where this argument leads: Extinction.
Of course, well-run hatcheries are a useful tool, one of the only tools left on some West Coast streams where wild stocks are so depleted that there would no fishery, ever, without hatchery fish. But in most of the great rivers of the West, there is enough habitat left to sustain healthy wild stocks -- if they are given a chance.
Now, with Hogan's ruling, there's reason to wonder whether they will ever get that chance. His decision will inspire new lawsuits against other salmon listings, making the same claim that hatchery salmon and steelhead should be equated with wild fish, that there's plenty of salmon, and recovery efforts are too costly and unneeded.
By now, we should know better. We've seen what happens when we fall back completely on hatcheries, when we foolishly spend tens of millions of dollars trying to raise fish on rivers that could do so naturally. We get what we have experienced over recent decades: strong runs once every 15 years or so, as in this year, but generally poor and declining returns of fish.
It's not clear whether the Bush administration will appeal Hogan's ruling, or whether the fisheries service can or will restore the Endangered Species listing of coastal coho when it follows the judge's order to count and consider hatchery fish.
But there should be no retreat from the recovery of wild salmon. Hatcheries are by necessity a critical Northwest resource, but the future of Pacific salmon swims not in shallow concrete ponds, but in cold, clean and healthy rivers.
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