People vs. Fish - We Choose People

Yakima Herald Opinion


The Bush administration has stirred up a predictable uproar with its announcement that hatchery-bred fish should be counted when deciding the status of Northwest fish protected by the Endangered Species Act. Why haven't they been counted all along?

We're aware of all the arguments against such a practice: hatchery fish are genetically inferior, commitments to habitat rehabilitation to help restore wild runs will be weakened, the ESA itself will be gutted, etc.

It's time to revisit the ESA anyway and bring fish restoration efforts a little more in line with reality.

State and federal governments, as well as Indian tribes, have spent billions of dollars on fish enhancement over the years - including hatcheries. Yet billions more could be spent, but wild fish runs will never be what they were in this area in the 1800s, when life was a lot simpler and people a lot fewer.

After spending all that money, the major gains in fish populations have been through the hatcheries, not wild run enhancement. The vast majority of salmon found in major West Coast rivers, including the Columbia, are bred in hatcheries.

And now some of them will be counted as the federal government tries to determine what salmon species are endangered.

Assuming these fish can breed, what's wrong with that? Hatcheries have done a splendid job of enhancing fish populations.

The administration's decision, which will be published in June in the Federal Register and then be opened to public comment, means that spawning wild salmon will no longer be the sole gauge of whether a salmon species is judged by the federal government to be on the brink of extinction.

The decision was in response to a 2001 federal court ruling in Oregon by U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan. He found that the federal government made a mistake by counting only wild fish - and not genetically similar hatchery fish - when it listed coastal coho salmon for protection.

At the heart of the fish-protection controversy is the Endangered Species Act, which has produced a costly overreaction to restoring fish runs. The ESA has had serious impacts on various economies in its zeal to protect and restore fish, with regulators arbitrarily snatching precious water supplies away from irrigators and others to provide it for fish.

If the new policy does lead to removing some stocks from ESA listing, it would relieve landowners, the hydroelectric system and farmers from controls that include stream buffers, use of some chemicals and limits on development. It should also mean more realistic fish enhancement efforts that recognize the presence of all those hatchery-bred fish.

At about the same time the Bush administration decision on hatchery fish was made public, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a lower court decision that the government can close irrigation ditches crossing U.S. Forest Service land to provide additional water to help endangered fish runs.

Irrigators argued to no avail that the Forest Service did not have the right to deny long-standing water rights to farmers. They said regulating water to set instream flows was more properly a state function.

Supposedly, the Supreme Court's decision will end this particular challenge in the Methow Valley in north-central Washington, but it certainly won't end the conflict and other court challenges that pit people against fish. The court ruling actually was just another in a long series of water decisions by people far away who too often don't understand the ramifications of water for fish versus water that is the lifeblood for people and area economies.

If we can produce enough water for fish and people, fine. But in those rare instances when the ultimate decision concerning water boils down to fish or people, we're going to side with people every time.

As far as this new controversy stirred by counting hatchery fish is concerned, it's becoming increasingly difficult to think of a species as on the brink of extinction when hatcheries are supplementing wild salmon at the rate of about 4 to 1.

Count the hatchery fish. Then update the Endangered Species Act to retain commitment to fish and habitat - but not blindly at the expense of people and economies.

Copyright, 2004, Yakima Herald-Republic. All Rights Reserved.



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