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Hatchery Salmon to Stay Protected

by Robert McClure
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - June 17, 2005

But some say new policy will allow more lawsuits against it

Chinook salmon in the Puget Sound region dodged a bullet yesterday when federal fisheries officials said the imperiled fish will not lose protection under the Endangered Species Act.

But environmentalists said a new government policy issued yesterday -- said by the government to reinforce protection for Puget Sound chinook and 15 other kinds of West Coast salmon -- is written so that lawsuits can easily undermine it.

And that's exactly what private-property-rights advocates said they would do, making plans to challenge the new policy in federal court as early as today.

The decision revolved around how to treat the salmon produced in hatcheries. Should they be counted under the Endangered Species Act? Private-property-rights activists say yes.

Not entirely, says the policy announced by the National Marine Fisheries Service. The agency said hatchery-bred fish could be counted in some circumstances as part of the salmon stock in question. But overall, the policy will emphasize protection of wild-spawned salmon, the agency said.

"Our focus continues to be, as it always has been, on wild stocks and their ecosystems," said Brian Gorman, a Seattle-based spokesman for the fisheries service.

Russ Brooks, the Pacific Legal Foundation attorney whose suit over Oregon coastal coho forced the agency to rethink all its West Coast salmon listings, said the new policy dodges the issues he raised.

Brooks says hatchery-bred fish are just as good as wild-spawned salmon and should be counted equally.

Because so many are produced in hatcheries, there's no reason to protect the wild-spawned fish, he says.

He attacked the new policy.

"It's just business as usual. They're basically playing a shell game," Brooks said. "They're moving the stealth under a different shell, but the game is the same."

Environmentalists and fishing groups, though, said the new policy erred in considering some hatchery-bred fish to be part of the same biological stock as wild-spawned fish.

"There was a simple way for them to do this, and then there's the complicated way they're doing it," said Jeff Curtis of Trout Unlimited. "It's like this slippery slope when you start counting hatchery fish."

Hatchery fish have long been known to be much less genetically varied than their wild counterparts, mostly because relatively few hatchery fish have traditionally been used to produce the eggs and sperm needed to start a new class of fish each year.

These fish, because of the way they are raised and when they are released, tend to harm wild stocks in myriad ways, such as crowding out the wild fish and eating their food.

But the Bush administration says properly run hatcheries could help supplement wild populations, so long as care is taken to ensure the genetics are handled right.

It's a view that many Indian tribes support, saying they are entitled to catch salmon such as those raised in hatcheries.

Conservationists, though, pointed to three scientific studies in the past year that have panned an early version of the policy announced yesterday.

Changes were made, but they were minor.

Although scientists don't yet fully understand what makes salmon succeed, preserving as much of the original gene pool for any given stock is the best way to ensure its continued survival, scientists say.

One panel of independent scientists assembled by the fisheries service warned recently, "To the panel, it appears that the proposed hatchery policy directly violates the thinking of leading (fisheries service) scientists."

Robert McClure
Hatchery Salmon to Stay Protected
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 17, 2005

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