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Feds back protecting wild runs of salmon

An NOAA spokesman says counting hatchery fish will not lead to wholesale de-listing of endangered fish
Saturday, May 15, 2004

Against mounting fears that the Endangered Species Act was itself in peril, the Bush administration Friday pledged to maintain its tough protections of depleted Northwest salmon stocks.

The move follows the disclosure in recent weeks that the U.S. government is drafting a new salmon plan in which hatchery fish -- turned out by the millions every year -- will be counted along with wild fish before deciding whether wild fish need protection under the ESA.

The shift raised basic questions about what a wild creature is -- and the role of the act. And it challenged the underpinnings of the Northwest's $700 million-a-year effort to rebuild salmon runs, depleted by loss of habitat to hydroelectric dams, logging, mining, and farm and urban development.

Conrad Lautenbacher of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spoke for the Bush administration, saying he wanted to correct "erroneous accounts of how our hatchery policy will be used." He said the "central tenet" of the government's hatchery policy is conservation of naturally-spawning salmon and their ecosystems.

"Consideration of hatchery fish does not lead to wholesale de-listing of species as some are claiming," Lautenbacher wrote in a letter Friday to the senators and members of Congress from Oregon, Washington, Idaho, California and Alaska.

While welcoming the message, wildlife advocates said they remain concerned about potential long-term consequences of the government's belief in hatcheries as part of the effort to aid wild fish.

"It's hard to predict where it's going to go," said Jeff Curtis, a Portland-based representative of Trout Unlimited. He said reliance on hatchery salmon could lead the government to ease restrictions on timber cutting, dam operations, and other habitat protections.

And farm groups and developers facing restrictions on water withdrawals and land use imposed for ESA-protected salmon also showed concern.

"The Bush administration is concerned about looking politically correct," said Darryll Olsen, with the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association. "The heart of the issue, at least in our mind, is how much impact does the mainstem hydro-system have on salmon fisheries at this time. We would say it is very minor. They are responding to political pressure."

Lautenbacher said science, not politics, is driving agency decisions about the role of hatcheries. He said well-managed conservation hatcheries are fostering recovery of salmon, some hatcheries are having little or no effect, "and some hatcheries potentially hinder recovery."

Lautenbacher said the agency has "preliminarily determined" to maintain protections for at least 25 of the 26 salmon stocks now listed under the Endangered Species Act. A NOAA spokeswoman said the status of mid-Columbia River steelhead remains undecided.

Suit challenged listings

NOAA's fisheries service began revising its hatchery policy in 2001, after losing a lawsuit brought by property owners and fishing guides who challenged the listing of coho salmon. U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan of Eugene said the agency erred when it excluded several hatchery stocks from federal protections given to the wild population of Oregon coast coho salmon.

NOAA decided to review all salmon listing decisions and to adjust its policy for considering hatchery fish in making those decisions.

Native American tribes with treaty rights to salmon have said the proposed changes move more in line with their vision for salmon recovery. The tribes co-manage salmon fisheries and hatchery operations throughout the basin and have long advocated greater use of hatcheries.

"There was a lot of nearly hysterical reaction to the leaked draft policy," said Charles Hudson, a spokesman for the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, which represents four tribes. "A careful read of it shows fairly minor adjustments to the way hatcheries are going to be considered," he said.

"One of the primary tools to maintain populations, to keep fish in the river, is through hatchery production and supplementing natural runs with properly managed hatchery fish," Hudson said. It looks to us that this policy gives us more flexibility to do that."

Hatchery role questioned

Some scientists and conservationists said the government is overstating the case for hatcheries.

"To say that they are speeding recovery -- that's a stretch at best," said Joe Whitworth, executive director of Oregon Trout.

Jim Lichatowich, an independent fishery biologist, said basic questions about hatcheries remain unanswered.

"Is it possible, in a hatchery environment, to artificially propagate a fish that is equivalent to a wild fish?" he said. "That is still the subject of scientific debate, it needs to be resolved through long term experiments and long-term evaluation."

Kirsten Boyles, an attorney with Earthjustice in Seattle, said the full legal consequences won't be clear until the government releases the full hatchery policy and assessments of salmon stocks for public comment in two weeks.


The Seattle Times: Local News: West Coast salmon likely to remain protected
Saturday, May 15, 2004 - Page updated at 12:40 A.M.

West Coast salmon likely to remain protected

By Craig Welch and Hal Bernton
Seattle Times staff reporters

The Bush administration yesterday infuriated Northwest developers and farmers by telling Congress it expects to keep Endangered Species Act protections for 25 of 26 troubled runs of West Coast salmon.

Environmentalists welcomed the news, but some said the administration acted only because of a backlash over its hatchery proposals.

To stem what it called "erroneous accounts" of its plan to deal with the impact of hatchery-produced fish on the region's once-legendary wild salmon runs, Commerce Undersecretary Conrad Lautenbacher Jr. wrote to Congress that the central tenet of hatchery policy will remain "conservation of naturally-spawning salmon and the ecosystems upon which they depend."

The move surprised environmentalists and business interests alike.

Just two weeks ago, based on leaked documents showing that federal agencies planned to count millions of hatchery fish alongside wild fish in assessing the health of salmon and steelhead runs, both sides assumed that the Bush administration was laying the groundwork to remove endangered-species protections.

Despite changes in fish-counting methods in some places, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) plans at the end of the month to propose leaving most of the West Coast runs protected under the Endangered Species Act, Lautenbacher said.

Among those that will remain protected are several runs in Washington: Puget Sound chinook; Snake River sockeye, chinook and steelhead, and Columbia River chinook, chum and steelhead.

The administration is still considering whether to remove protections from one Columbia River steelhead run.

"NOAA's decisions are driven by science," Lautenbacher said. "Simply put, some well-managed conservation hatcheries are fostering recovery of species, some hatcheries are having little or no effect, and some potentially hinder recovery."

Yesterday's announcement "is absolutely ridiculous," said Timothy Harris, an attorney with the Building Industry Association of Washington, which had sued NOAA Fisheries to force it to scale back salmon protections.


"Up and down the West Coast there are millions of chinook, chum, sockeye and coho. What other species that number in the millions even come close to meriting listing under the ESA?"

The controversy dates to 2001, when U.S. District Court Judge Michael Hogan ruled that the government had wrongly excluded hatchery fish from its analysis when determining that Oregon coastal coho needed federal protection.

Since decisions on 26 other dwindling salmon runs from Southern California to Bellingham were made using the same process, conservative and business groups sued NOAA, arguing that all its listings were illegal.

NOAA declined to appeal, and eventually agreed to reassess the status of all listed salmon runs and take a new look at how it counts hatchery fish.

Bob Lohn, regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries in Seattle, said the administration decided to release the results yesterday because it wanted to make two points.

"First, NOAA has a strong commitment to habitat restoration, and to preserving and restoring naturally spawning fish runs, and nothing in our discussions was intended to distract from that," he said. "Second, we wanted to make clear that in our status reviews, we were not making a decision that would cause massive delistings of salmon."

Some environmentalists argued that the administration reversed its intentions only after a backlash from scientists and members of Congress over its hatchery proposals.

Lohn said that wasn't true.

"This is what happens when the public spotlight is put on an issue of such importance to people in our region," said Kristen Boyles, an environmental attorney with Earthjustice. "When the hatchery policy was leaked, people here responded immediately and passionately for wild fish and clear, unpolluted rivers."

Some business groups accused Lohn and the administration of allowing NOAA bureaucrats to take salmon policy out of the hands of White House officials.

Just last week, Tom McCabe, vice president of the building-industry association, slammed Lohn in a letter also sent to Republicans in Congress, as a "disappointment to thousands of Washington citizens farmers, ranchers, builders, small businessmen, property owners who expected the Bush administration to delist salmon."

"You have pandered to the radical environmentalists who are no friends of the Bush administration, and never will be, no matter what you do."

McCabe and Russ Brooks, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, both promised to take the administration back to court to remove salmon protections.

Brooks, whose group filed the initial suit on Oregon coho, argued the administration's actions yesterday were based on "wrongheaded misinterpretation" of the law.

Boyles, of Earthjustice, called Brooks' argument nonsense.

"What would be illegal would be to delist wild salmon populations that need protection," she said.

Lohn said the assessment of salmon will continue to consider four factors: their abundance, their ability to reproduce and sustain themselves, their genetic diversity and their distribution.

In other words, "if we're not getting back two natural fish for every two that spawn, then a hatchery won't solve that problem," he said.

Lohn said the administration is still considering lifting protections on Columbia River steelhead, which return to spawn in tributary rivers above Bonneville Dam.

These include the Yakima, Walla Walla and Klickitat rivers in Washington, and the Deschutes, John Day and Umatilla in Oregon.

The administration will make its decision on the Columbia River steelhead by month's end.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com

Hal Bernton: 503-292-1016 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

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