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Commentaries and editorials

Scientists Criticize Government
over Salmon Rules

by Associated Press
Lewiston Tribune, May 2, 2004

SEATTLE -- Scientists appointed by the government to review salmon-recovery efforts are lashing out at federal court rulings that require both wild and hatchery-raised fish to be counted when determining whether a species is threatened.

In an editorial being published in today's edition of the journal Science, the six scientists also criticized the National Marine Fisheries Service, saying the agency must do more to protect wild salmon.

"One hundred years of hatcheries have not brought back wild Atlantic salmon to Maine," lead author Ransom Myers, a fisheries biologist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, said in a news release Thursday. "Once we lose the wild populations of salmon and the natural habitats that support them, we will never get them back."

At issue is a debate over whether hatchery-raised salmon help or hinder salmon conservation efforts. The hatchery fish are generally bigger than their wild counterparts, and thus can compete more easily for food upon release, but in the long run, their instincts are worse. They die at much higher rates than wild fish, so their survival as a species is less likely, the scientists wrote.

In eastern Canada, the scientists wrote, "Hatcheries effectively disguised long-term problems."

But in 2001, U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan of Eugene, Ore., ruled that the fisheries service could not give Endangered Species Act protection just to wild fish if it had previously lumped hatchery fish into the same population -- which the fisheries service does. It counts both hatchery and wild fish in its "evolutionarily significant units" of salmon, because the wild and hatchery fish in those units are genetically indistinct.

Last month, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed an environmental group's appeal of that ruling, effectively dissolving the threatened species listing for coho salmon off the Oregon coast and prompting similar lawsuits challenging salmon listings elsewhere in Oregon, California and Washington. The fisheries service is reviewing its policy on protecting wild fish.

The six scientists -- Simon A. Levin of Princeton University, Robert Paine of the University of Washington, Russell Lande of the University of California at San Diego, Frances James of Florida State University, William Murdoch of UC-Santa Barbara, and Myers -- were hired more than two years ago by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Northwest Fisheries Science Center, at a rate of $800 each per day.

The science center asked them to design a study that would compare the survival and recovery of salmon in rivers without hatchery fish versus those with hatchery fish. In their response, the scientists included several policy statements critical of the Bush administration, said Bob Lohn, regional administrator for the fisheries service.

The science center asked them to remove those statements from their response and present them in a different forum, he said, which they agreed to do.

"The scientists decided to publish in Science to make sure the policy implications reached a wide audience because of their concern for the recovery of populations of wild salmon in California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho," they wrote in their news release.

The article urges the fisheries service to redefine the term "evolutionarily significant unit" to exclude hatchery salmon, which would help ensure that wild fish retain protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Lohn said the agency is considering how to respond to the court rulings, but suggested there would be two problems with the scientists' approach: one, that the hatchery and wild fish are genetically similar; and two, that the Endangered Species Act requires that officials consider conservation efforts -- including artificially raised fish -- in determining whether a species needs protection.

He also said that within the scientific community, there are varying opinions about the effectiveness of conservation by hatchery.

"They're eminent folks. I respect and appreciate their opinion, but there are other eminent scientists who would disagree," Lohn said. "We're obligated to follow the law and the ESA. The heart of the question is not whether you consider hatchery fish, but what weight you give to them. That's the much more difficult question."

Responding to their criticism that the agency has been too easily influenced by developers and others who would degrade the environment, Lohn argued that the federal government is spending $90 million on habitat restoration this fiscal year and has proposed spending $100 million next year.

"By far and away, the greatest part of our recovery effort has gone into habitat restoration," he said. "I don't see any backing away from that."

Related Sites:
Northwest Fisheries Science Center:
National Marine Fisheries Service:

Associated Press
Scientists Criticize Government over Salmon Rules
Lewiston Tribune, May 2, 2004

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