Western Salmon Could Lose Federal Protection

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, November 12, 2001 (ENS) - A judge's ruling overturning federal protections for a single population of salmon has prompted the National Marine Fisheries Service to launch a review of at least 20 other populations, and possibly overhaul its policies toward hatchery raised salmon. Environmental groups fear the agency's decision could strip many wild salmon of protection.

The decision "could potentially affect, in addition to Oregon Coast coho salmon, 23 out of 25 listed salmon and steelhead populations on the West Coast," the agency said.


A young coho salmon (Photo courtesy Earthjustice)
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), announced Friday that it will not appeal a September court decision which found that hatchery born salmon are biologically indistinguishable from naturally spawned wild salmon. A federal judge in Oregon reversed NMFS's action listing the Oregon Coast coho salmon as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, calling the listing "arbitrary."

The 21 page decision by Judge Michael Hogan stated that, "the NMFS listing decision creates the unusual circumstance of two genetically identical coho salmon swimming side by side in the same stream, but only one receives ESA protection while the other does not."

The court ruled that the wild population should not be viewed separately from the thousands of hatchery reared coho born each year. The inclusion of hatchery fish would expand the population to the point where it would not warrant federal protection, the judge said.

Hogan's decision was applauded by property rights advocates, including the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), which represented the Alsea Valley Alliance in the case challenging the salmon listing.

"This ruling will go a long way in forcing NMFS to restore some level of common sense to listing species under the Endangered Species Act," said PLF attorney Russell Brooks.


Rare fish in the Pacific Northwest, like these chinook salmon, could be affected by the NMFS review (Photo courtesy Bonneville Power Administration)
But environmental groups warned that the ruling could set a precedent removing protection from all wild salmon populations, and urged the Bush administration to challenge the decision.

A coalition of conservation and fishing groups, led by Earthjustice, is working to overturn Judge Hogan's decision. Last month, a federal district court denied the request by the eight groups to reinstate federal protections for Oregon coast coho salmon.

On Friday, NMFS announced that it will "immediately implement actions to improve salmon protection and recovery efforts, including a comprehensive, public review of its salmon hatchery policies." The agency said it would maintain its current protections for listed salmon species, but will also review the status of about 20 salmon populations with an eye to whether hatchery bred salmon should be considered part of those protected populations.

"Recognizing the successes of local restoration efforts, we are determined to build on this momentum and bring state, local and tribal groups together to discuss salmon restoration efforts in a new and meaningful way," said Bill Hogarth, NMFS assistant administrator. "Our goal is to apply the best science and take into account public input in developing a salmon protection model that will benefit people, our environment and ensure healthy fish populations for generations to come."

Hogarth said NMFS plans to encourage local initiatives to restore salmon runs, focusing on working with public/private partnerships such as the Hatchery Scientific Review Group, Puget Sound Shared Strategy, Lower Columbia River Estuary Program and a multitude of local watershed recovery efforts throughout the Northwest and California.

"We look forward to a thorough review of our hatchery policies that addresses the court's decision in the Alsea case in a timely manner, while also ensuring that wild stocks of Pacific salmon are protected during our review," Hogarth said.


In 1998, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife officials clubbed hatchery raised salmon to death to keep them from mixing with wild born Oregon coho salmon (Photo courtesy Pacific Legal Foundation)
Judge Hogan ruled that NMFS can list salmon under the Endangered Species Act, and can decide which populations of the fish should be considered part of the protected population. However, once a decision is made to include hatchery fish in the protected population, all of the fish - hatchery and natural alike - must be listed or not listed together.

Earthjustice attorney Kristen Bowles said the group will continue to oppose including hatchery raised fish as part of dwindling populations of wild born fish.

"The bottom line is we are losing native salmon runs up and down the coast, and the [Endangered Species Act] recognizes that raising fish in hatcheries is no substitute for the real thing," said Boyles.

NMFS views the judge's decision as a chance to update the agency's policies with the help of new information, and with the input of local governments.

"This decision affords the Northwest region the ability to reevaluate and improve salmon protection efforts," said Bob Lohn, NMFS northwest regional administrator. "By working with local communities to strengthen existing state and federal protections and learning from the successes, including tribal programs, we can build a broad community based approach to protecting salmon and their critical ecosystems."

Besides Oregon coast coho, NMFS has listed some 20 additional salmon and steelhead populations that also have hatchery populations that are not listed. NMFS will immediately begin updating its information on these groups, and will review their status after the agency updates its policy concerning hatchery raised fish.

"We will proceed with protection and recovery activities for all listed salmon species," said Lohn. "We are committed to sustaining the partnerships that we've built to work together on conserving our salmon and steelhead and their ecosystems."

Details of the agency's actions are contained in its 'Salmon ESA Review Action Plan' available at: http://www.nwr.noaa.gov. The agency's policy review will include opportunities for public input, and is expected to be completed by September 2002.