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Salmon-counting change sets off protests

Conservationists say the plan will mean the waste of decades of work and millions of dollars to provide endangered species help to wild salmon
Friday, April 30, 2004

The Bush administration's plan to alter the Northwest's salmon-saving strategy was met with outrage Thursday by conservation groups claiming that decades and billions of dollars of effort that provided endangered species protection would unravel.

"It's totally inverting the way that we view the criteria for success in dealing with the region's salmon problem," said Jason Miner, conservation director for Oregon Trout, a Portland-based nonprofit group leading restoration projects across the state.

Miner was referring to the plan's directive to count hatchery fish as part of the total salmon population estimates.

Fish hatcheries produce about 200 million salmon and steelhead each year for release into the Columbia River Basin. These fish will be counted along with wild salmon when the government decides whether stocks deserve continuing federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.

For the first time, federal authorities could declare a wildlife population recovered even if its survival depends in part on continued artificial production.

Conservation groups argue that the new policy will undermine efforts to reclaim wild salmon streams and rivers degraded by decades of logging, mining, dam-building, and farm and urban development.

But many details remain unclear.

Foremost: Whether the policy will lead to the removal of federal protection from any of the 26 stocks of Pacific salmon now listed as threatened or endangered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, also known as NOAA Fisheries.

"There are still loopholes that NOAA Fisheries could pursue," said Russ Brooks, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation. The California-based foundation, representing farmers and home builders, brought the lawsuit that forced the government to reconsider the role of hatchery salmon.

The property owners Brooks represents argue that salmon protections have illegally restricted their use of water and land. They maintain that the fish don't merit federal protection when abundant hatchery fish can readily prevent extinction. Pacific Legal Foundation has filed lawsuits seeking the removal of several stocks from the endangered list.

Brooks said the government's new approach "certainly helps us out." But he said, "It remains to be seen in the coming year, how this will play out."

More will become clear by the end of June, the deadline for the government to complete reviews of the status of Pacific salmon -- and possibly propose changes in federal protections. If the fisheries services proposes the removal of any stocks from the endangered list, the process of taking and responding to public comments could take up to one year before making rulings final.

But conservation groups contend the emphasis on hatchery "supplementation" creates a false sense of confidence, and undermines the urgency of fixing damaged streams, bridges and dams that block salmon access, ensuring adequate water supplies are left in rivers for fish.

Some commercial salmon fishermen share the concern.

Many think that they have been fighting a desperate rear-guard action for decades to maintain fisheries undermined by the development of hydroelectric power, farms and expanding cities. Fishing in the Columbia River and along the coast would not be possible without the immense production from hatcheries, largely funded by revenues from electricity sales by the federal Bonneville Power Administration.

"But I think everyone in the fishing industry would much rather see wild salmon that are abundant and reproducing in healthy watersheds than rely on hatcheries," said Glen Spain, an Oregon-based representative of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.

Bob Lohn, regional administrator of NOAA Fisheries, said his agency intends to make better use of hatcheries to speed recovery.

"The heart of this policy would say that run right and operated properly, hatcheries can make an important contribution to recovery and hopefully they will get you there more effectively and more quickly," Lohn said.

Previously when deciding the threat of extinction, the agency considered only the status of naturally spawning salmon, weighing their abundance, productivity, genetic diversity and geographical distribution. Now the agency plans to also consider any hatchery fish that are genetically "no more than moderately divergent" from their wild fellows.

"It's a broader approach and it allows us to look at more tools for recovery," he said. "It doesn't mean automatically everything is well just because there are large numbers of fish in one hatchery."

Electric utilities that underwrite a big share of salmon recovery in the prices they pay for electricity, expressed satisfaction with the new approach.

"The ratepayers who have been paying for a lot of recovery efforts, they welcome a clearer policy," said Scott Corwin with the PNGC Power, a cooperative of 15 electric utilities in the Northwest.

"If hatcheries can help a species recover, they should be used to do so," Corwin said.

Advocates of the expanded use of hatcheries, including Native American tribes in the Columbia basin, said there is no excuse to abandon habitat restoration work.

"From our understanding of the policy, that would not occur," said Andre Talbot, a senior scientist with the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission in Portland.

"We intend to continue to advocate for natural runs of salmon in all the historic places, with all the diversity that used to exist in the past," he said.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski's administration expressed concern that the policy could undermine Oregon's plan for restoring salmon and watersheds.

"The whole Oregon plan is built upon the naturally spawning population of wild fish. You can't all of sudden declare hatchery fish are the equivalent of wild fish," said Jim Myron, an adviser to the governor on natural resources.

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


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