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Analysis: Bush administration issues new rules about counting salmon hatchery fish to determine its species status under the Endangered Species Act
ROBERT SIEGEL, host: An important ruling today on environmental policy from the Bush administration. It involves whether to count fish that are bred in hatcheries when determining the health of salmon populations. The administration says it will count hatchery fish in deciding whether salmon should be protected under the Endangered Species Act. Adding hundreds of millions of fish to the equation could lead to a conclusion that wild salmon stocks are healthy, and that would relieve the government, farmers, power generators and timber interests from some rather costly efforts to rebuild the wild salmon population. NPR's Elizabeth Arnold is with us to explain what all this means.
Elizabeth, it sounds like semantics. Isn't a salmon a salmon? What's going on here?
ELIZABETH ARNOLD reporting:
Well, it's really more about math, Robert. Right now four out of five salmon found in major West Coast rivers, including the Columbia, are bred in hatcheries. These aren't wild fish. Their feeding and migration patterns are totally different. But these fish will now be counted as wild, which will dramatically inflate the number of truly wild salmon in these rivers.
Now why does that matter? Well, it makes it easier for the government to say, `Salmon are doing fine. We don't have to jump through all these costly, difficult hoops to protect them under the Endangered Species Act,' when, in fact, scientists will tell you that hatchery fish aren't the same as wild fish. Their rate of survival is much lower than wild fish, and this will simply mask what's really going on in fish stocks in the rivers.
SIEGEL: What led to this policy decision by the Bush administration?
ARNOLD: A few years ago, a group of farmers and home builders who were frustrated by the Endangered Species Act and the fact that their land and use of water was being restricted to protect coho, or silver salmon, on the Oregon coast, which was listed as endangered. They said, `Hey, look, there's plenty of silver salmon out there swimming around. It's getting pumped out by these hatcheries. What's the big deal? Salmon's salmon. It should all be counted together.' And a US District Court judge agreed, revoked the listing and basically said hatchery fish should be included in the same distinct population segment as the wild fish with which they associate.
Now the Bush administration's made that policy. And it's going to publish this new rule in June, which will really alter what's become a 700-million-dollar-a-year effort to save wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest.
SIEGEL: Now I understand that the government went to a group of experts to get their opinion on this idea, and that last month in the journal Science, the experts said they thought it was a bad idea. What was their objection to counting hatchery-raised salmon as part of the whole population?
ARNOLD: Well, these six of the world's leading experts on salmon ecology warned that, in short, relying on hatchery fish could have devastating consequences. They said wild salmon would decline or go extinct while hatchery fish would persist. They cited studies in the Bay of Fundy, where hatcheries effectively disguised long-term problems with native Atlantic salmon which nearly went extinct. And they said, `Look, this opens the legal door to maintaining a fish stock solely through hatcheries.'
SIEGEL: Is this a controversy that's completely limited to salmon, or does it have implications for other endangered species?
ARNOLD: It could have broader implications. There are some 15 species of salmon that are listed under the act as either endangered or threatened. Now the regional administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service says the agency will still work to protect wild salmon, but that hatcheries will now be considered a kind of extension of natural habitat. And that's a big change, Robert. There's going to be a period of public comment, and you can bet there'll be plenty of comment about it. Conservation groups and scientists are already up in arms about this, and they're all predicting dire consequences.
SIEGEL: NPR's Elizabeth Arnold on how the federal government intends to count the salmon population in the Pacific Northwest.
Thanks a lot for talking with us.
ARNOLD: Thank you, Robert.
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