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NOAA Fisheries issues new hatchery policy, reviews ESA listings
6/16/2005, 7:12 p.m. PT

JEFF BARNARD The Associated Press

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) A new federal policy issued Thursday puts 131 strains of hatchery salmon under Endangered Species Act protection along with their wild cousins, but allows those raised artificially to still be harvested by fishermen.

While counting hatchery fish along with wild fish under the new policy, NOAA Fisheries decided against taking 15 populations of salmon and steelhead off the threatened and endangered species lists, added lower Columbia River coho to the threatened list, and decided to wait six months before deciding what to do with 10 listed populations of steelhead and Oregon Coastal coho. California coastal coho were changed from threatened to endangered.

Both the review of Endangered Species Act status for all West Coast salmon and steelhead and the new hatchery policy were prompted by a 2001 federal court ruling that NOAA Fisheries could no longer consider the same strains of salmon and steelhead different just because one spawned naturally in the wild and one was spawned artificially in a hatchery.

NOAA Fisheries considered more than 300 strains of hatchery fish before deciding that 131 of them were genetically close enough to their wild cousins to be useful to recovery, said Bob Lohn, northwest regional administrator of the agency.

At the same time, the agency adopted a rule saying that fish marked to show they came from a hatchery ?" generally by clipping the tiny adipose fin near the tail ?" would not be subject to Endangered Species Act protections against being killed, and could still be harvested by fishermen.

"The reason we're doing that is to encourage more hatcheries to move toward local brood stock, even if they are primarily producing fish that would be harvested," Lohn said.

Salmon have been declining for more than a century due to over-harvest, habitat destruction, and misguided hatchery practices that diluted the gene pool and flooded rivers with fish ill-suited to survive in the wild. Since the 1990s, many hatcheries have adopted new practices that preserve genetic diversity, and maintain local brood stock that evolved in a given drainage.

Russell Brooks, the lawyer whose lawsuit on behalf of property rights advocates prompted the status review and the new hatchery policy, said he would go ahead with a new lawsuit.

"What amazes me most is that after the agency lists hatchery salmon as threatened with extinction, which is crazy in itself, it then exempts hatchery salmon from ESA protection," Brooks said. "And the reason it gives for doing that is saying they are surplus to recovery needs.

"What I think the agency is saying is there are so many damn salmon out there they just can't protect them all."

Conservationists complained that NOAA Fisheries ignored the advice of scientific advisory panels, who suggested that hatchery fish and wild fish could be managed in separate populations, known as evolutionarily significant units.

Lohn responded that NOAA Fisheries' own scientists felt that there was abundant evidence that hatcheries were valuable in restoring dwindling wild runs in the short term, if not in the long term.

"We have a very clear decision in 2001 by Judge (Michael) Hogan, who indicated we are required by law to take into account hatchery fish," Lohn added. "This rule is our way to say how we take them into account. We think it is consistent with the best science."

Jeff Curtis, western director of Trout Unlimited, said conservation groups were also likely to sue, because they felt there was strong scientific evidence that hatchery salmon and wild salmon were different.

"This just blows by all that science, just like we blow by the science about global warming," added Kristin Boyles, attorney for Earthjustice.

On the Oregon coastal coho listing, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife had provided surveys and analysis showing they remained viable, not in danger of extinction, even during the difficult 1990s, when they faced poor ocean conditions, drought and flood. When ocean and climate conditions improved, the fish strongly rebounded.

"We had hoped this information would have been able to inform the decision right now, but we are willing to wait a little bit," said Ed Bowles, chief of the department's fish division. "They key thing is do we have state mechanisms in place to continue to improve on these fish regardless of the federal listing, and we do."




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