Willingness to strip federal protections from few remaining wild fish in favor of artificial recovery could signal final blow for many wild stocks
Vice President of Conservation
8/20/2003 -- Portland, Ore. -- Officials with Trout Unlimited, the nation’s largest trout and salmon conservation organization today expressed their grave concern with the Bush administration’s apparent failure to recognize remaining wild Pacific salmon and steelhead trout stocks as the lynchpin to a sustainable future for these magnificent fish.
“It is the wild salmon’s adaptation over centuries to ever-changing environments, climates and interactions with other species that has sustained it as such a remarkable, prolific animal,” said Chris Wood of Trout Unlimited. “The reservoir of adaptation and survival skill that is hard-wired into every wild fish is something that the ongoing experiment of artificial production has yet been able to replicate using all the technology at its disposal.”
The Bush administration has decided to review the status of 26 stocks of Pacific salmon and steelhead presently protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Their intent is to remove as many stocks as possible from federal protection citing large numbers of hatchery-reared fish that inflate recovery numbers. Meanwhile, many wild fish stocks continue to dwindle. In fact, the Pacific Fisheries Management Council predicts that returns of wild fish in 2003 will be 62 percent lower than those of 2002, and overall numbers still hover at barely 10 percent of historical abundance.
Removing federal protections for wild fish could have significant impacts on habitat protections provided in hydropower, timber, pesticide and hatchery operations as well as urban development. “Proactive measures to protect and restore salmon habitat on millions of acres of public and private lands could be jeopardized by a hare-brained reliance of hatchery fish to recover wild salmon,” said Wood.
Leading the administration’s de-listing candidates is the Oregon coast coho. While recent favorable ocean conditions have produced robust returns of hatchery-produced coho, wild fish numbers continue to decline. The story is similar for other West Coast listed stocks: A report released earlier this year by a team of federal fisheries scientists concluded that, even with the recent high returns, none of the 26 listed stocks has rebounded sufficiently to be considered for removal from the ESA, and in fact two listed stocks are worse off.
“Inundating our rivers and streams with hatchery fish to project artificial abundance and false recovery is like emptying an ice truck in South Florida and then claiming it snowed,” said Wood. “No amount of spin or wishful thinking can legitimize hatcheries replacing the importance of high quality healthy habitat,” he said.
Trout Unlimited has long maintained that Endangered Species Act protections for fish should be afforded to naturally spawned and reared stocks only, citing primarily a passage from the Act’s own implementing regulations which define the Act’s purpose to prevent “an action that reasonably would be expected, directly or indirectly, to reduce appreciably the likelihood of both the survival and recovery of a listed species in the wild.” (emphasis added). Trout Unlimited led a coalition of 17 conservation groups in April of last year in petitioning the federal government to exclude hatchery fish from ESA protection among 15 listed West Coast salmon and steelhead stocks. The agency in charge, NOAA Fisheries, accepted the petitions but failed to act on them within the required one-year window and as yet still has not done so.
Wood said Trout Unlimited calls upon the administration to recognize and protect the irreplaceable resource the nation has in wild fish, as well as the leading role they will play in any successful salmon, trout or steelhead recovery. Wood added that we have barely begun to scratch the surface of what wild fish can teach us.
“Hatcheries may someday indeed have a place as recovery tool,” Wood said. “That success will depend almost entirely on the hatchery system’s ability to mimic as closely as possible what we are just beginning to understand about the life history and experience of the wild salmon and steelhead and their ecosystems.”