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Fishletter 6/2/04

Federal authorities proposed last week that all 26 current ESA listings for West Coast salmon and steelhead stocks remain protected, but were upbeat about their future prospects. The proposed determinations include an analysis of affected hatchery stocks using a new policy designed to satisfy a 2001 court decision.

The new policy calls for considering hatchery fish in ESUs if they are genetically similar to wild stocks, with the agency taking into account that some well-managed hatcheries are contributing to recovery of wild runs.

"Our work is paying off," said NOAA Fisheries' Northwest regional administrator Bob Lohn. He said recovery efforts and good ocean conditions have helped most stocks. Of the 18 ESUs for which they have good data, Lohn said 16 have made "substantial improvements." He said two other ESUs, Oregon coastal coho and mid-Columbia steelhead, are near recovery and may soon be considered for de-listing.

Sacramento River winter chinook and upper Columbia steelhead have shown enough improvement to be proposed for "threatened" status instead of their current spots in the "endangered" category. The agency also proposed to bump central California coho from "threatened" to "endangered" status and to list lower Columbia coho as "threatened."

Lohn was quick to point out that status determinations depend on abundance, productivity, genetic diversity and spatial distribution. He said hatchery numbers are no substitute for naturally spawning fish, and the recently leaked page from the proposed hatchery policy didn't tell the full story. Lohn said the agency feels that artificial propagation has both potential benefits and risks to wild populations.

But NOAA Fisheries may not have told the full story, either. Their proposed status updates do not include wild fish return data from 2002 and 2003, which, for most Northwest stocks were some of the highest in decades. The agency had earlier said it would include the updated figures to draft status reports completed in February 2003 before making any final determinations.

Conrad Lautenbacher, Under Secretary of Commerce, was on hand at Friday's press conference announcing the plan to emphasize the Bush administration's commitment to naturally spawning fish and their ecosystems, and the use of sound scientific principles like those developed in the Puget Sound hatchery reform effort. Lautenbacher, Lohn and others had visited the editorial boards of major Northwest newspapers the previous day to explain the new policy.

But some salmon groups took issue with the agency's proposals before they were released. Save Our Wild Salmon, Trout Unlimited, The National Wildlife Federation and others all panned the new policy, saying it lacked scientific credibility.

More legal battles seem a sure thing. Russell Brooks of the Pacific Legal Foundation, the group whose litigation led to the 2001 Hogan decision that forced NOAA Fisheries to change its hatchery policy, said the feds are running a shell game, instead of responding to the spirit of the ruling. He expected to sue the agency again when the policy becomes final, with a notice to sue letter out within a week. The agency will accept public comments for the next 90 days before settling on a final policy. -B. R.



The hysterical media reaction to the possibility that federal policymakers would count hatchery fish toward ESA recovery goals ebbed quickly after a top Commerce Department official said May 14 that only one salmon and steelhead population on the West Coast might be delisted.

But after hyping the potential of diluted ESA fish protections on the West Coast in recent stories, media giants like the Washington Post and The New York Times didn't even acknowledge the government's announcement, suggesting the media seriously overreacted to information in a document leaked to the press at the end of April (See NW Fishletter 179 .)

Conrad Lautenbacher, Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, and NOAA head, announced in a May 14 letter to Congress that the feds had "preliminarily determined" at least 25 of the 26 species under review will be proposed for relisting in the next two weeks. The lone run still in limbo was mid-Columbia steelhead.

The announcement had some stakeholders--like the Building Industry Association of Washington--fuming. "Bob Lohn [regional NOAA Fisheries administrator] has clearly lost control of his agency," said BIAW attorney Tim Harris, "and the inmates are running the asylum."

The BIAW was particularly rankled because it, along with some property rights advocates, had sued the feds to act on eight ESA petitions for delisting in the wake of a 2001 federal court ruling (the Hogan decision in Alsea Valley v. NMFS) that found NOAA Fisheries had erred by not giving hatchery fish the same ESA protection as wild fish in the same Evolutionarily Significant Unit. A Spokane judge recently gave the feds until the end of May to announce their findings. The feds had argued, to no avail, that they needed several more months to complete their new hatchery policy before they could act on the petitions.

But ever since an April 28 story in the Washington Post cited a "leaked" document that said the new federal policy was going to count hatchery fish, some conservation groups and Northwest politicians were quick to voice their disapproval. The Save Our Wild Salmon coalition began a congressional letter-writing campaign, noting that a recent science panel put together by the fish agency had said it was dangerous to include hatchery fish as part of an ESU.

In a March opinion piece in Science magazine, the panel said adding hatchery fish could open "the legal door to the possibility of maintaining a stock solely through hatcheries." The panel went to Science hoping to gain a wider audience for their message after they said the federal agency resisted its findings. They said hatcheries generally reduce fitness and inhibit future adaptation of natural populations, and that the legal definition of an ESU must be unambiguous--"Hatchery fish should not be included as part of an ESU," they said.

Washington senators Maria Cantwell (D), Patty Murray (D) and Rep. Norm Dicks (D) sent an April 30 letter to Commerce secretary Don Evans, asking for a copy of the new draft policy. They hinted strongly that potential fish delistings could dry up salmon funding and asked for an explanation of how the plan could affect future listings.

On May 5, Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski "denounced" the federal proposal, telling The Oregonian that it could bring an end to a decade of salmon restoration work.

However, in subsequent news accounts, federal officials, like Lohn and NOAA Fisheries inter-governmental program advisor Jim Lecky, said the new policy didn't mean that runs would be delisted, and that people were jumping to conclusions.

Those remarks got the BIAW to send a scathing letter to Lohn, accusing him of "pandering" to environmentalists, and calling the leaked document "suspicious" because it gave local editorial writers a chance to bash Bush administration policy. "Now you can wave these clips around and claim that Washington voters don't want salmon delisted," they told Lohn.

Commerce undersecretary Lautenbacher's presence first appeared in a letter to Northwest newspapers that was published May 12 in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, where he pointed out that his agency had to account for hatchery fish in a new way because of the 2001 court decision that ruled hatchery and wild salmon from the same group "had to be listed, or not listed, together."

"Lost in that intense debate that followed," wrote Lautenbacher, "was what the court didn't say: It didn't say one hatchery fish is the equivalent of one wild fish or that a listing determination is a mere numbers game. The real question is not how many fish a hatchery can add, but how it can, or cannot contribute to the overall recovery of the total population, including naturally spawning fish."

That same day, more heavy guns appeared in the op-ed war of words. In the Post-Intelligencer, Puget Sound politicians Ron Sims and Larry Phillips said since hatchery fish are "brewed in a tank, they don't imprint on home streams like wild fish do. Like an unleashed computer virus, once launched into the wild, hatchery fish travel freely to a variety of streams, bringing with them increased risks to wild fish."

A couple days later, The Seattle Times published a plea from Bill Ruckelshaus, chair of Washington state's salmon funding board. "The region's solution will include hatchery fish," Ruckelshaus said, "but let's not lose sight of the bigger picture." He said a shared strategy is crucial to "present a unified effort" to both the state and federal government for the actions and funding to keep the Puget Sound recovery effort going.

Lautenbacher's letter to Congress on the relistings was released the same day. "As our preliminary conclusions indicate, appropriate consideration of hatchery fish does not lead to a wholesale delisting of species as some are claiming. Equally erroneous," he said, "is the suggestion our policy would allow the purposes of the ESA to be satisfied by having all the salmon in a hatchery."

Senator Cantwell issued a wary response to Lautenbacher's missive. "This letter does not ease my concerns because the Administration still has not handed over the details of their new policy, like I asked. I remain very concerned about whether this policy is based on sound science or political expediency. My fear is this policy will derail our region's ongoing salmon recovery efforts and end up wasting time and taxpayers' money."

The feds' May 14 pre-announcement of the announcement had attorneys like Portland-based James Buchal predictably torqued. Buchal, who filed many of the delisting petitions for irrigators in the wake of the 2001 Hogan decision, said "this represents yet another colossal failure on the part of the Bush Administration to bring about rational administration of natural resources in the Pacific Northwest. The Bush appointees all seem to regard the editorial boards of know-nothing Northwest newspapers as the repository of the best available salmon science."

But Lautenbacher's latest letter wasn't even reported in either the Washington Post or The New York Times, where a story early this month suggested Bush appointee Mark Rutzick, an Oregon attorney with ties to the timber industry, as the main catalyst for promoting the policy to include hatchery fish. Rutzick now serves as a NMFS legal advisor.

Meanwhile, scientific debate over fitness issues between wild and hatchery fish will continue, and it may be more substantial than earlier reported. For instance, during the latest flurry of accusations and hyperbole, no one has reported on the fate of a March 2003 petition filed by a group of Northwest scientists that recommended the government should count hatchery fish along with wild stocks when it updated the status of listed ESUs.

The group circulated a white paper that said genetics arguments supporting wild fish were 'politicized' science.

Attorney Harris says the petition is simply being ignored by the feds, and their lack of firm deadlines lets them get away with it.

The pro-hatchery group of retired biologists claim that most criticism of hatchery salmon "is based on comparisons between divergent stocks of fish, which is not a true comparison between wild and hatchery fish from the same stock." The group also said these arguments are clouded by uncertainties, with too few well-designed studies to provide the hard data to test assumptions.

The group--including retired federal scientist Gary Wedemeyer, Jim Lannan, William McNeil, Don Amend, and Charlie Smith--circulated a white paper in 2001 on hatchery and wild salmon around the region that said genetics arguments supporting wild fish were "politicized" science. They pointed out that arguments over "fitness" are theoretical and ignore the fact that both hatchery and wild fish "are acted upon by the same evolutionary forces during the majority of their life cycle in the ocean."

NOAA Fisheries' Gorman said it seems likely that the Oregon coastal coho ESU, the species involved in the Hogan decision that provided the impetus for revising hatchery policies, may be delisted by next September if the state of Oregon assumes responsibility for protecting the stock. Since those coho are already listed under the state's own endangered species act, the shift seems likely to happen. -B. R.


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