Guest Opinion: Are
salmon really endangered?
Sonya D. Jones, Pacific Legal Foundation, and John R. Lott
Jr., author of Freedomnomics and senior research scholar at
the University of Maryland, Statesman Journal 8/2/07
Is a fish born in a
hatchery a different species from a fish of the same
populations born in the wild?
Does it matter that hatcheries have been used to reintroduce
populations into ecosystems where they ceased to exist? Does
it matter that the offspring of a hatchery fish and so-called
wild fish is considered wild?
There is a lot at stake in these questions, and even federal
district court judges in the Pacific Northwest cannot seem to
agree. In 2001, Judge Michael Hogan of the District of Oregon
rejected the claim that hatchery and “naturally” spawned
salmon were different. Because of that, he then rejected
classifying the Oregon Coast coho as endangered.
But, in mid-June, Judge John C. Coughenour of the Western
District of Washington ruled that “human interference” and the
“unnatural” way that hatcheries maintain salmon populations
was unlawful. Judge Coughenour then ordered that the Upper
Columbia River steelhead remain on the endangered species
With these conflicting decisions, it is high time to finally
figure out who is right and today the Pacific Legal Foundation
is filing an appeal with the 9th Circuit Court to do just
The ultimate decision will dramatically affect a lot of people
living in the Pacific Northwest. Protecting the salmon will
make water much more difficult to obtain and, without
irrigation permits, many farmers and ranchers will have to
stop watering their crops and livestock. Large areas of
private property will have to be set aside for any species
listed as threatened or endangered. The commercial and
recreational fishing industries in the Northwest, which
generate more than $2 billion annually, will also be affected.
Promoting the survival of salmon is a worthy goal but does it
really matter if a fish’s ancestors are from a hatchery or are
naturally spawned? As it is, many so-called “wild” or
naturally spawned salmon were all but gone and brought back
through the use of hatcheries. Given that hatcheries have been
around for over 100 years, it is extremely doubtful that any
naturally spawned salmon lack ancestors who were not from a
The Endangered Species Act is clear: “to provide a program for
the conservation of ... endangered and threatened species.”
But how do you define hatchery and naturally spawned fish as
different species? There are no biological or genetic
differences, the only way you can tell the fish apart is a
clipped fin on hatchery fish. Environmental groups claim that
some hatchery fish behave differently, but that is hard to
take seriously. Why ignore all hatchery fish just because some
But think where that logic ultimately leads. By defining
different species based on behavior, how many different
species of humans do you think that there would be?
The claimed distinction largely stems from hatchery and
natural fish survival rates. Hatchery fish have a higher
survival rate from egg to smolt, but a lower survival rate
from smolt to adult. Yet, that is hardly surprising. Many of
the weaker naturally spawned fish have already died off so
that there are fewer of them to die off in the next stage. In
the past, the government’s policies have lurched from one
extreme to another.
The irony is that while the courts are today asking if the
salmon are endangered, in the late 1990s, the State of Oregon
ordered mass killings of salmon to dry up the food supply for
predatory sea lions and drive them away from the damns. The
eggs from these salmon were shipped to hatcheries in South
America and the dead fish sent to canneries. Private land
owners are now facing the brunt of costly government mistakes
in the past.
These two court cases highlight the importance of balanced
environmental policies. But if you are going to adopt policies
that severely impact farming and ranching, it should actually
accomplish something. The Pacific Legal Foundation’s appeal of
Judge Coughenour’s decision will hopefully bring some logic to
protecting the salmon.
Sonya D. Jones is an attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation in
Bellevue, Wash. and represents the appellants. She can be
reached at email@example.com. John R. Lott Jr. is the
author of Freedomnomics and is a senior research scholar at
the University of Maryland. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.