Feds Keep All ESA Stocks Listed,
by Bill Rudolph
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.
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