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Policy will put hatchery fish in salmon count

The change in federal rules is expected to rewrite how agencies protect endangered salmon
Thursday, April 29, 2004
MICHAEL MILSTEIN

and JOE ROJAS-BURKE

In a move that will dramatically alter the federal government's approach to protecting wildlife, the Bush administration will count the hundreds of millions of fish turned out by Northwest hatcheries when deciding whether salmon deserve continued federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.

In a new policy to be announced in the coming months, the administration will adopt a strategy that considers the indoor tanks and concrete raceways of hatcheries extensions of natural rivers and mountain streams where salmon spawn.

This means that salmon, long the focus of billions of dollars worth of restoration projects and bitter environmental conflicts, could more quickly be declared healthy. And that would relieve power generators, farmers and property owners of endangered species burdens -- including limits on farm irrigation and the electricity production levels of dams -- imposed by the federal government.

The new approach could sharply redefine the standard for declaring when an imperiled species has recovered. A salmon population could be removed from endangered species protection even if it requires ongoing, multimillion-dollar hatcheries to survive, said Bob Lohn, regional administrator of NOAA-Fisheries, the federal agency that oversees salmon.

"Just as natural habitat provides a place for fish to spawn and to rear, also hatcheries can do that," Lohn said . "Properly run, hatcheries can become a kind of extension of natural habitat."

He said the benchmark for recovery under the Endangered Species Act is that a species is not likely to go extinct in the near future. But he said the species need not sustain itself without help.

"That doesn't preclude human assistance or intervention," he said by phone late Wednesday from Washington, D.C.

The policy, now in draft form and headed for publication by June in the Federal Register, came as good news to Native American tribes in the Columbia River Basin.

"If the new federal policy is willing to accept a little more risk, and be a bit more aggressive with hatchery supplementation, I think we are going to see some good results," said Charles Hudson, a spokesman for the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, which represents four tribes with treaty rights to Pacific salmon.

The tribes co-manage salmon fisheries and hatchery operations throughout the basin and have long advocated greater use of hatcheries. Hudson said, however, that the tribes do not propose hatcheries as a panacea for destruction of habitat that has drastically reduced salmon populations.

"Hatcheries are not an excuse to relax the obligations of land managers to manage responsibly," Hudson said. "Simply increasing numbers of fish would be an artificial fix."

But others were harshly critical of the Bush administration's new approach.

"It sounds like the government is going to be setting salmon recovery back about 100 years," said Jim Lichatowich, an Oregon-based fishery biologist and author of "Salmon Without Rivers."

Lichatowich said federal and state agencies attempted to use hatcheries to compensate for habitat lost to dams, mining and development for most of the 20th century but failed to stop the widespread collapse of salmon runs. "What we've learned in the 100 years since then, is that hatchery fish need habitat as much as wild stocks do," he said.

The administration's action follows the affirmation in March of a 2001 court ruling that said the government must include abundant supplies of hatchery-born fish when deciding whether salmon stocks deserve protection.

Farm groups and home builders, in bringing the lawsuit, contended that the salmon listings illegally restrict their use of water and land. The said federal protections forced them to pay for measures that fish don't need, given the readily available supplies of hatchery salmon.

Conservation groups sought to overturn the 2001 ruling. But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said it lacked jurisdiction to get involved and let stand the ruling by U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan of Eugene.

"What this policy does is allow hatcheries to be considered as part of the solution," Lohn said. "I think it gives us new paths to recovery, so hopefully we can get to recovery more swiftly and more successfully."

Previously, when deciding on federal protections, biologists looked only at the status of naturally spawning salmon populations, weighing their abundance, productivity, genetic diversity and geographical distribution.

"The difference now is that we will look at both of them" -- hatchery and wild fish -- when considering the recovery of species, Lohn said.

Lohn's assertions differ, in part, from the opinions expressed by agency scientists more than a year ago. They wrote that the use of hatchery fish to sustain natural populations is a "hypothesis which is being tested, but which is not yet scientifically proved or disproved."

The draft said the Endangered Species Act requires salmon to be protected if they are unable to support themselves by natural spawning in streams. While acknowledging a potential role for hatcheries to help replenish wild salmon, the draft said "there is no clear indication that Congress intended artificial propagation to be a replacement for natural production at the cost of disrupting the 'balance of nature' and the natural ecosystem."

Lohn said the new policy does not seek to have all salmon produced in hatcheries but to recgonize the contribution that hatchery fish can make.

Joe Rojas-Burke: 503-412-7073, joerojas@news.oregonian.com

Michael Milstein: 503-294-7689; michaelmilstein@news.oregonian.com

 

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