Judge discounts hatchery fish in salmon recovery efforts
Wash. - A recent salmon decision handed down by a federal
judge could have far-reaching effects on agriculture in the
Pacific Northwest and California, said John Stuhlmiller,
assistant director of government relations for the Washington
State Farm Bureau.
On June 13, U.S. District Judge John Coughenour in Seattle
ruled that hatchery-bred fish cannot be counted alongside
naturally spawning fish when determining protection under the
Endangered Species Act.
His ruling applies specifically to protections for the Upper
As a result of the ruling, the listing of the Upper Columbia
River steelhead was raised from "threatened" to "endangered."
In this case, the Upper Columbia consists primarily of the
Methow, Okanogan, and Wenatchee watersheds.
But Stuhlmiller warns that because the ruling also raises
questions about overall hatchery policy, it has the potential
to affect ESA listing designations in Oregon, Idaho,
California and other parts of Washington.
Simply put, a "threatened" listing means a species is at risk.
An "endangered" listing means it is in danger of extinction.
Land-use regulations come into the picture because when a fish
population is listed, critical habitat requirements such as
buffers, as well as regulations pertaining to water
temperature, pesticide runoff, and irrigation withdrawals,
An "endangered" listing would generally require stricter
land-use regulations than would a "threatened" listing,
although both put landowners under the gun to provide the
habitat the listed species needs to survive and thrive.
For many farmers and ranchers, Coughenour's decision comes as
disheartening news because it flies in the face of an earlier
court decision, often referred to as the "Alsea decision,"
which required hatchery fish to be counted when determining
whether a fish population should be listed.
"Bottomline, it guts the Alsea decision," Stuhlmiller said.
In Alsea Valley Alliance v. Evans, U.S. District Court Judge
Michael Hogan in Oregon ruled that the National Marine
Fisheries Service acted illegally by counting only naturally
spawned salmon and disregarding hatchery-spawned salmon when
deciding whether or not to list the Oregon Coast coho as a
As a result of that decision, the federal fisheries service
reevaluated its listing designations and listed the Upper
Columbia steelhead as "threatened" instead of "endangered" -
primarily because fishery scientists credited hatchery fish
for helping in the recovery of the steelhead.
In his recent decision, Coughenour described the "threatened"
listing of the Upper Columbia steelhead as "unlawful" because
both it and the federal fisheries service's hatchery listing
policy run contrary to the purpose of the ESA, which is to
promote and conserve naturally self-sustaining populations.
"It is clear that hatchery fish have important differences
from wild fish," Coughenour said in his decision.
Trout Unlimited, along with three environmental groups and
three other fishing groups, launched the lawsuit against the
National Marine Fisheries Service.
The Washington State Farm Bureau, the Idaho Water Users
Association, the Coalition for Idaho Water, and the Building
Industry Association of Washington, were interveners.
Both the Farm Bureau and the Idaho Water Users intend to
appeal the case to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
"The policy is flat wrong," said Stuhlmiller. "We want to make
sure that Judge Hogan's ruling is honored."
Bob Lohn, administrator of the National Marine Fisheries
Service's Northwest regional office, said the agency is
disappointed in the judge's decision.
"We continue to believe hatcheries can serve a valuable
purpose toward recovery," he said.
Cases on this same issue are pending in Oregon and California
district courts. In Oregon, Judge Hogan, the same judge who
ruled that hatchery fish should be counted when making listing
designations, will serve as the judge.
"I'm sure he'll be writing some further advice," Lohn said.
Lohn also said he thinks it's important to have a uniform
"We want to get advice from the other two cases," he said.
"Hopefully, we can harmonize policies. The real question is
not if a species is endangered or threatened, but how can we
rebuild these runs as quickly as possible."
When referring to agriculture specifically, Lohn said he
agrees with one of the conclusions of a recent climate-change
report done by a leading scientific group that pointed out
that keeping farms and ranches in business is key to salmon
"That still remains true," said Lohn. "Key protections for
salmon will come from agricultural landowners."
As for the immediate effects of the recent decision on
agriculture, Lohn said it probably won't make a big difference
While Farm Bureau's Stuhlmiller might agree with that, he said
the bigger issue is that as a result of the decision, it will
be harder to get a species delisted.
For agriculture, that's a critical issue, he said, because
instead of land-use restrictions easing off as would be the
case when a species recovers and is delisted, the restrictions
will remain frozen in time - or get stricter.
"You'll be stuck with land-use restrictions and you'll never
be able to go back to less-restrictive regulations," he said.
Cookson Beecher is based in Sedro-Woolley, Wash. Her e-mail
address is email@example.com