Should hand-reared fish be counted in efforts to save wild, imperiled salmon? A U.S. federal judge has said yes, and the U.S. government earlier this month decided not to challenge the ruling. As a result, up to two dozen West Coast salmon populations could be stripped from the endangered species list. These developments have outraged conservationists, who say counting hatchery fish is like tallying zoo animals when deciding if their wild brethren are threatened with extinction.
The government has used hatcheries for more than a century to bolster commercially valuable salmon runs. The fish are dumped into rivers as juveniles, then swim out to sea and mature in the ocean for several years before returning to the hatchery. But while the pampered hatchery fish are sometimes the same species as their wild kin, they're often less skilled at foraging or avoiding predators. Because they weren't considered essential to a population's long-term survival, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has ignored the hatchery fish when determining which salmon populations need protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Now NMFS's parent agency, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has declined to appeal a September court ruling that reverses this approach. A U.S. District Court judge agreed with a Sacramento, California, property rights group called the Pacific Legal Foundation, which was challenging the omission of hatchery fish in the 1998 listing of wild Oregon coast coho salmon. The judge ruled that NMFS had been "arbitrary" in distinguishing between "two genetically identical" salmon.
NOAA's decision earlier this month to let that ruling stand uncontested signals a change in policy. Critics fear the decision will mean less protection for endangered fish, noting that NMFS must immediately delist the Oregon coho salmon and may be forced to delist other salmon populations.
Biologists say these developments run counter to salmon science. "A whole sheaf of scientific studies" shows hatcheries cause problems for wild fish, says Robin Waples of the NMFS Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. Interbreeding between hatchery and wild fish can produce less fit mongrels. Waples and other NMFS scientists hope to hash out the biological significance of these differences by next September, when the agency plans to release a new policy on the role that hatcheries should play in salmon restoration.