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Feds to Count Hatchery Fish

by Staff
Lewiston Tribune, April 30, 2004

Administration says hatcheries are extensions of natural salmon habitat

PORTLAND, Ore. -- In a dramatic shift in salmon recovery policies, the Bush administration intends to count the hundreds of millions of fish produced in hatcheries when deciding whether salmon deserve federal Endangered Species Act protection.

In a policy to be announced in the coming months, the administration will adopt a strategy that considers the indoor tanks and concrete raceways of hatcheries extensions of natural rivers where salmon spawn, The Washington Post and The Oregonian newspaper reported in Thursday's editions.

This means that salmon, long the focus of billions of dollars worth of restoration projects and bitter environmental conflicts, could more quickly be declared healthy. Previously, the government had drawn a clear distinction between salmon capable of reproducing in the wild and those reared in hatcheries.

Still top fisheries officials said the policy does not mean threatened and endangered salmon runs can be removed from federal protection simply by producing more hatchery fish.

"I don't think you can read this position to say a fish is a fish and you can just make more fish to delist," said Jim Lecky, intergovernmental policy director for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at Washington, D.C.

But environmental groups insist the government is trying to recover salmon by changing the definition of recovery. In doing so they say the policy would eliminate the need to protect and restore salmon habitat, salmon-friendly water flows and other burdens born out of efforts to protect the fish.

"They appear to be opting for a course of relying on fish raised in concrete pools to mask the precarious condition of wild fish," said Jan Hasselman, an attorney for the National Wildlife Federation at Seattle.

A salmon population could be removed from endangered species protection even if it requires ongoing, multimillion-dollar hatcheries to survive, said Bob Lohn, regional administrator of NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency that oversees salmon.

"Just as natural habitat provides a place for fish to spawn and to rear, also hatcheries can do that," Lohn said. "Properly run, hatcheries can become a kind of extension of natural habitat."

He said the benchmark for recovery under the Endangered Species Act is that a species is not likely to go extinct. But he said the species need not sustain itself without help.

The policy that is in draft form could be released in late May or June, according to Lecky. It will likely coincide with or immediately proceed an announcement of the outcome of a process to determine if several runs of Columbia River and Snake River salmon and steelhead will remain on the endangered species list.

Officials from the federal fisheries agency decided to take a new look at the listings following a 2001 decision by U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan at Oregon. He ruled that the government erred when it listed only wild coastal coho as threatened and not hatchery coho as well, even though both are considered to be from the same population, known as an evolutionary significant unit.

Lecky said the Hogan decision is the foundation for the change in policy. But he said the Endangered Species Act still requires the government to protect wild fish.

"We will look at the need to have natural producing populations in the evolutionary significant units," he said.

Some, like Kaitlin Lovell, salmon policy coordinator for Trout Unlimited at Portland, Ore., think the government will move to remove runs like Snake River Fall Chinook from the list.

Removing fall chinook would allow public and private dam operators to devote more water to power production in the summer months and could reduce the need to use water from Dworshak Reservoir to cool the Snake River. It would also make dredging the shipping channel in the Lower Snake River much easier. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been blocked from dredging by lawsuits from environmental groups.

"I think (the policy) ignores mounds of legal and scientific arguments that say hatchery fish are one of the reasons wild fish have declined," she said.

Snake River steelhead might be another candidate for desisting. Wild steelhead are still struggling, but hatchery runs are strong enough to produce annual fishing seasons. Many stocks of Snake River chinook salmon have both the wild and hatchery portions of the run listed.

If the proposed policy change is implemented and some stocks of salmon are removed from federal protection, environmental groups would likely sue, according to Hasselman.

"This administration is turning its back on the law and its own promises to recover fish."

Feds to Count Hatchery Fish
Lewiston Tribune, April 30, 2004

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