Effort to Save Wild Fish
by Michael Milstein
Salmon - The new federal policy will de-emphasize hatcheries,
closing some, but specifics are still to come
Saying it makes little sense to eat imperiled salmon, the Bush administration on Wednesday revealed plans to cut back the catch of wild Northwest salmon and shut down hatcheries that churn out competing but inferior fish.
James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, told fish biologists in Portland that the administration is shifting its focus from merely keeping protected Columbia River salmon from extinction to ensuring they recover.
"Our goal is to minimize and, where possible, eliminate harvests of naturally spawning fish, which provide the foundation for salmon recovery," he said. "It's the right thing to do."
He said federal fish agencies will work with tribes and states during the next year to impose new restraints. They will look first at ways for commercial and sportfishing interests to avoid wild fish, then limit the number of fish caught.
He did not provide specifics about how much the catch might be reduced, what effect it might have on the remaining fishing season or how many hatcheries might be closed.
But fish advocates and tribes questioned whether the plan is meant to divert attention from hydroelectric dams where turbines kill many young salmon. A federal district judge in Portland is holding the government's feet to the fire for repeatedly failing to remedy the damage done by dams.
The judge, James A. Redden, has ordered extra water released over the dams to help salmon evade the turbines.
"The federal government will do anything they can to shift the blame to harvest, when the dams they built and they won't take out kill about 90 percent of the fish," said Dan Grogan, president of Fisherman's Marine & Outdoor stores in Portland.
Connaughton announced the administration's plans at Salmon 2100, a conference that is part of an attempt by leading scientists to assess the future of Northwest salmon. They have concluded that current recovery efforts will not be enough, and salmon -- already at about 5 percent of their historic numbers -- nearly will vanish by the turn of the next century.
Global commerce, the scarcity of vital resources such as clean water, population growth and competing priorities are working against salmon, they said. They recommend applying new technology to the most troubled salmon runs, overhauling bureaucracy and changing individual human behavior to take the pressure off fish.
Connaughton, the president's top environmental adviser, said billions of dollars have been spent on restoring salmon habitat and making improvements at dams, such as weirs to keep salmon out of turbines.
Fishing has been greatly reduced since 26 populations of salmon have been listed as threatened and endangered since 1991.
But Connaughton said fishing that removes about half the severely imperiled fall chinook returning to the Snake River is difficult to justify when loggers must stop cutting trees to protect spotted owls.
"Although I recognize the complexity and broader equities of the matter, something still seems curiously out of sync here," he said.
"We cannot improperly hatch, and we cannot carelessly catch, the wild salmon back to recovery," he said. About 60 percent of summer chinook that otherwise would return to the Columbia River are caught as they migrate through Alaskan and Canadian waters.
The administration will re-examine the international catch and take a strong position for salmon conservation when the treaty with Canada that governs the catch expires in 2008, Connaughton said.
He also charted a new direction for the network of salmon hatcheries across the region, first built to offset the impacts of dams and supplement fishing. Biologists have realized that mass-produced hatchery fish often compete with wild fish best adapted to thrive in Northwest rivers and streams.
If the wild and hatchery fish interbreed, they produce fish that don't fit the conditions, said Bob Lohn, regional administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service.
About two-thirds of the salmon in the Columbia River come from hatcheries, Lohn said.
His agency will begin a review of all 180 hatchery programs in the Northwest to determine whether they interfere with wild fish populations. If they do, they must be changed or curtailed.
Some hatcheries are beginning to raise local strains of salmon that better fit conditions and actually may boost wild populations, he said. Other options might be for hatcheries to produce different types of fish that migrate at different times than wild fish.
That would reduce competition between the fish and the chances that anglers aiming for hatchery fish inadvertently catch wild fish.
Connaughton said the administration is committed to the treaty rights of Native American tribes to harvest salmon. "Tribes already make a significant contribution towards recovery by limiting their own harvest," he said. "We need to be sure everyone else limits their harvest."
Charles Hudson of the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission praised the attention to reforming hatcheries. But he said repairing salmon habitat and reducing the damage from dams remain the biggest opportunities to help salmon get ahead.
Cutting back the salmon catch threatens to drive the Northwest, Alaska and Canada "back to the dark days of the salmon wars."
"The share of the pie fishing takes is minuscule compared to the dam and habitat impacts," he said. "There's this appearance they're going to look for recovery by blaming the fisherman and looking for some kind of psychic healing."
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