plan upholds status of wild salmon
Wild salmon should continue to be protected under the Endangered Species Act even though their hatchery-born cousins are thriving, the federal government said Wednesday.
In a draft proposal sent to Northwest states and tribes and posted on the agency's Web site, the National Marine Fisheries Service said salmon should be listed as threatened or endangered so long as wild stocks are fairing poorly.
Large hatchery runs are irrelevant, the agency said, because the federal act is designed to protect both the species and the ecosystems they depend on -- rivers and streams, in the case of salmon and steelhead.
The proposal is a victory for conservationists, who feared that abundant runs of hatchery salmon the past two years might trigger delisting of many of the 26 West Coast salmon and steelhead stocks under federal protection.
"This means we are still going to have wild salmon protected under the Endangered Species Act," said Patti Goldman, an attorney for the Earthjustice in Seattle.
The fisheries service's proposal comes 10 months after U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan of Eugene ordered Oregon coastal coho removed from the endangered species list because, he said, the federal government treated hatchery-born salmon as different from salmon born in the wild. Hogan ruled that the fisheries service erred first by saying that hatchery and wild coastal coho were part of the same population, and then by "arbitrarily and capriciously" giving federal protection only to wild salmon.
Oregon coho were put back on the endangered species list after the U.S. Court of Appeals agreed to consider an appeal filed by conservation groups. But the fisheries service decided after Hogan's ruling that it would develop a new hatchery policy and reconsider 25 of the 26 listed stocks of salmon and steelhead.
Protecting all salmon -- including those from hatcheries -- would be a big problem for sport anglers, who target hatchery fish and are not allowed to catch most wild salmon. Last year, for example, Oregon sold 227,743 salmon fishing tags.
About 80 percent of the millions of salmon that return from the ocean to rivers and streams in Oregon, Washington, California, Idaho and Montana each year are born in hatcheries.
Russell Brooks, an attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation who brought the lawsuit before Hogan, criticized the draft policy and predicted more lawsuits if it is not modified. "The fact that they will consider only wild fish when they evaluate the status of the entire population violates the ESA," Brooks said. "It seems more and more that the fisheries service is playing a shell game."
Brian Gorman, a fisheries service spokesman, said the agency was trying to ensure that salmon remain in West Coast rivers and streams -- which he said would not happen by depending on hatcheries alone -- while also recognizing the importance of hatcheries. "Those folks who are hanging their hats on the delisting of salmon because of the huge numbers of hatchery fish are at odds with the goal of the ESA," Gorman said.
The policy would require that the fisheries service include hatchery and wild salmon in each population it considers protecting under the Endangered Species Act. The population would qualify for federal protection if the wild fish were in trouble.
The proposal would allow the fisheries service to set different protection rules for wild and hatchery salmon, even if both are listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Hatcheries can play a role in rebuilding wild stocks, the draft policy says, but only if hatcheries are designed and operated to produce fish that look and behave like wild salmon.
That worries Joe Whitworth, executive director of Oregon Trout.
"Hatcheries do not have a track record of being run in a way that they help wild stocks," Whitworth said. "Now NMFS is saying we're going to change everything and manage hatcheries to improve recovery. I've got big questions about that."
Don Sampson, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, sees it the other way around. He thinks that the fisheries service, by being too cautious about hatcheries, might make it too difficult for tribes to use their hatcheries to rebuild wild salmon runs. "Hatcheries must be part of a salmon-rebuilding program," he said.
The fisheries service will consider comments submitted by states, tribes and other federal agencies by Aug. 16, then release a public draft in September for comment. The draft policy is posted at www.nwr.noaa.gov. You can reach Jonathan Brinckman at 503-221-8190 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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