A move to protect wild salmon disappoints property-rights advocates
Thursday, July 25, 2002
Efforts to protect wild salmon that spawn naturally in streams and lakes cannot be dropped just because hatcheries are able to crank out lots of fish, the National Marine Fisheries Service declared yesterday.
The preliminary decision is a blow to property-rights advocates who sought to remove Endangered Species Act protections from numerous West Coast salmon stocks and won a court ruling that forced NMFS to re-evaluate its policy.
The proposed policy says the goal of the Endangered Species Act protections for salmon is "the preservation of self-sustaining naturally reproducing populations in their natural habitats."
"The two key words are 'natural' and 'self-sustaining,'" said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for NMFS. "Clearly, a hatchery population is not self-sustaining, because people are involved in stripping the eggs from the fish; nor is it natural."
The announcement cheered environmentalists.
"It is very strong on what we've been saying all along -- that the Endangered Species Act protects species in their natural ecosystem," said Patti Goldman, a Seattle lawyer with the Earthjustice law firm. "That means we need salmon in rivers, and the fact that we can produce fish in hatcheries doesn't mean we don't need to protect them in their natural habitat."
Property-rights advocates pointed to a ruling last year by U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan, who declared that salmon raised in a hatchery near Oregon's Alsea River deserve the same legal protection as salmon spawned naturally in a nearby creek. The judge said NMFS improperly refused to protect hatchery-bred fish under the Endangered Species Act. The agency last fall responded by launching a rewrite of its policy.
The new version announced yesterday conflicts with the spirit of Hogan's decision, maintained Russ Brooks, a Bellevue lawyer with the Pacific Legal Foundation whose suit led to the ruling.
"I can certainly appreciate the high wire that NMFS is trying to walk, but nonetheless, it appears (the proposed policy) is just a shell game," Brooks said.
Property rights advocates say they want to temper strict land-use restrictions imposed to protect salmon-bearing streams.
NMFS' decision comes even as Washington officials are allowing unusually generous salmon-fishing limits, including a sockeye season in Lake Washington beginning tomorrow.
The proposed policy will be reviewed by state and tribal fishery managers in coming weeks. After revisions based on their appraisals, the policy will be up for comments by the general public.
The policy is a departure from NMFS' past practices in at least one significant way: For the first time, it anticipates using some hatcheries to help rebuild dwindling wild stocks.
This is a controversial idea because most scientific studies of hatcheries' effects on wild stocks have shown that hatcheries can hurt the survival of wild fish.
A key reason this happens is because hatchery-bred fish overwhelm wild fish, crowding them out and eating food that otherwise would go to the wild fish. And, because of the way most hatcheries have been operated, they have greatly diminished the genetic variability that allowed salmon to survive for thousands of years in habitats as varied as Eastern Washington desert and high-elevation streams of the cool, lush Olympic Mountains.
A major problem with traditional hatcheries has been the tendency of hatchery managers to ignore those geographic differences, using eggs from one area to operate a hatchery in an entirely different environment. Fish produced that way are, in essence, genetically mismatched to the river where they are released.
A new movement championed largely by Indian tribes would try to alter the way hatcheries are operated so that they can be used to supplement endangered wild populations. While NMFS' current policy on endangered salmon treated hatcheries as uniformly bad, the proposed reform says it's possible to use hatcheries to help wild stocks rebound.
However, the proposal still makes it too difficult for tribes to launch such restoration efforts, said Don Sampson, executive director of the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission. It would make tribes prove that there is absolutely no way that a hatchery program would hurt the wild fish, he said, when that isn't possible.
"There needs to be more flexibility, as we have always stated," Sampson said. "The burden of proof could be so high that it would limit our ability to use supplementation" of wild runs with hatchery-bred fish.
P-I reporter Robert McClure can be reached at 206-448-8092 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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