Extremes miss boat on salmon recovery
June 10th, 2004
That's all right. The salvation of West Coast salmon and steelhead runs isn't likely to be found at either extreme.
One side would bar hatchery fish from any tally and the other would count them as identical to wild runs. Both views have some merit, but only in some cases.
NOAA Fisheries, formerly the National Marine Fisheries Service, favors an approach that tries to decide what's best for each of the 27 West Coast salmon and steelhead runs under federal protection, which may mean a role for hatcheries.
It's not as though the agency has any option of revising hatchery policy. In 2001, a federal court ruling on lawsuit over the status of Oregon coastal coho gave hatchery fish the same protection as wild fish.
The fear -- or hope, depending on your point of view -- was that the ruling as applied by the Bush administration would result in some fish being dropped from lists of federal endangered and threatened species.
But when the federal fish agency recently completed its review, all of the previously listed salmon and steelhead remained protected under the Endangered Species Act.
In fact, the study of hatchery fish found the artificially bred fish are mostly harming efforts to restore natural runs.
Bob Lohn, the agency's regional director, bluntly stated, "For those who were thinking that putting fish in concrete would provide an easy way out, this plainly says that won't be acceptable."
It's easy to be confused about the issue. The messages are often conflicting -- environmentalists bemoaning the fragility of salmon runs, images of returning fish being clubbed by the thousands to prevent them from spawning, irrigators touting record returns. None of it seems to add up.
One problem is that defining what exactly constitutes a specific salmon run is less straightforward than it might seem, leaving room for argument over whether two groups ought to be considered part of the same species.
Deciding whether a run is healthy is just as open to interpretation. Big numbers of returning fish are great but don't necessarily indicate much about the run's long-term survival.
Reproductive rates, genetic diversity in the population and whether a run is spread out over a wide enough region to survive a local crisis are all important factors, NOAA Fisheries has decided.
And while hatchery fish might contribute to abundant returns in the short run, they also might be weakening the genetic diversity that helps species adapt to environmental changes over the long haul.
On the other hand, the Yakama Nation's facility near Cle Elum and other new-era hatcheries are proving that when done right, hatchery fish can strengthen a natural run.
By raising fish that are closely related to the natural runs they are meant to enhance, and doing it in conditions that mimic the natural environment, tribal members are improving salmon returns in the upper Yakima River.
What's commendable about NOAA Fisheries' proposed policy is that it doesn't assume hatchery fish are equals to their natural counterparts, nor automatically condemn them as harmful to restoration.
Instead, the goal is to determine the best ways to use hatcheries to help restore, not supplant, natural runs.
When combined with habitat restoration and other efforts to save salmon, the proposed hatchery policy represents a practical approach that identifies where the region needs to focus salmon recovery.
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