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Debate over salmon counts to heat up

What makes wild salmon wild?

That will be the question this summer, as we begin yet another round in the nearly century-old debate over reconciling salmon and salmon fishing with other uses of the Columbia River and Basin.

Later this month, NOAA Fisheries, the federal salmon management agency, will present its new salmon hatchery policy for public comment.

Through the magic of leaks, the essence of that policy is already public. Reversing past policy, NOAA Fisheries intends to count some hatchery produced salmon in calculations required by the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Says the leaked NOAA Fisheries statement, “The genetic resources [of a population] can reside in fish spawned in a hatchery . . . as well as in fish spawned in the wild. . . . Hatchery fish that are genetically no more than moderately divergent from a natural population [will be considered part of the population] in determining whether [a population] should be listed under the ESA”

Discussion of this change of policy will focus attention on a new generation of salmon hatcheries now being designed and tested to accommodate the last quarter century of concern about preserving biodiversity and the genetics of naturally spawning salmon.

Supplementation hatcheries (also called conservation hatcheries) get their brood stock from local streams and return juveniles to the same streams to complete their life cycle. When the method works, those juveniles later return as adults, creating the first (of hopefully many) generations of entirely naturally spawning salmon.

Using hatchery technology to supplement, restore or initially introduce wild spawning salmon has a long history. Successful examples include chinook salmon in the Snake and Clearwater rivers and Lake Coeur d’Alene, Atlantic salmon on the East Coast and even a century old chinook salmon run in New Zealand.

Regardless of their employment, or attitudes toward environmentalism, many salmon biologists agree that conservation hatcheries produce salmon that satisfy the revised policy’s standard of being “no more than moderately divergent from a natural population.” They also concede that salmon, whose forebearers spawned in conservation hatcheries, usually cannot even be distinguished from those of entirely natural ancestry.

In my view that means they should “count,” just like entirely wild fish, for purposes of ESA implementation. That would make conservation hatcheries a cost-effective (and permanent) alternative to draconian salmon recovery measures, like removing the Snake River dams or lowering the John Day Reservoir. They could also substitute for sacrificing electricity and irrigation water to flush water over dams and through reservoirs for the sake of salmon.

Of course, there are also cost-effective habitat improvements, like screening irrigation ditches, clearing obstacles from spawning streams and better logging and land-use practices. Combined with conservation hatcheries, these might yield a salmon recovery program that returned as much (or nearly as much) in tangible economic benefits as it cost.

I didn’t expect environmentalists to agree with that program, and they didn’t. I spoke with representatives of several groups belonging to the environmentalist coalition Save Our Wild Salmon. All considered conservation hatcheries improvements over traditional production hatcheries, intended only to support commercial and sport harvest. However, none conceded they should be permanent substitutes for achieving ESA compliance through habitat changes, possibly including draconian measures like dam removal.

The debate will go on and be affected by many things. Not the least will be the outcome of the next and subsequent presidential elections. Expect Republican fisheries appointees to continue supporting conservation hatcheries and other technological solutions to salmon conservation and ESA compliance. Expect Democratic appointees to support the environmental community’s preference for habitat protecting restrictions on land and water use, possibly including dam removal.

Another important factor will be involvement of affected individuals and groups. Over the past quarter century of salmon debate, users of Columbia River and Basin resources have usually been silent — until their immediate economic interests were threatened. Suggest removing dams or withdrawing irrigation water and expect howls from potentially injured parties.

In the future, resource users must understand and participate in the whole ESA implementation process, not just discussions of use restrictions that directly affect them.

For example, they must participate in this summer’s public comment period concerning the new hatchery policy. Salmon hatchery policy may seem remote to the interests of urban electricity users and rural farmers. But they should take the time and trouble to support efforts by current fisheries administrators to expand the role of conservation hatcheries in ESA implementation. An expanded role for conservation hatcheries can only benefit resource users when subsequent decisions are made about dam removal, water rights and similar matters.

 

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