Federal officials have withdrawn plans to use the Endangered Species Act to protect Maine's dwindling stocks of wild Atlantic salmon. This abdication leaves Maine officials in charge of protecting the fish under a controversial plan outlined in yesterday's Federal Register.
Less than 200 years ago, researchers estimate that more than 500,000 seagoing salmon returned to New England rivers each fall to spawn. Today, less than 5000 return to 19 U.S. rivers, mostly in Maine, though larger runs survive in Canada and Europe. The decline prompted environmentalists in 1993 to petition federal agencies to designate U.S. Atlantic salmon as an endangered species. Fisheries officials rejected the request, in part because few of the remaining fish are genetically unique: Most are a mix of strains raised in hatcheries, and therefore not considered essential to the continued survival of the species overall. Instead, federal officials proposed limiting protection to seven Maine rivers believed to harbor the last few hundred genetically distinct wild salmon. The compromise offer sparked fierce opposition from Maine politicians, who feared federal action would curtail hydropower generation, blueberry farming, aquaculture, logging, and recreational fishing: The politicians threatened to take the feds to court.
Now, in an unprecedented move, the Departments of Commerce and Interior have withdrawn their protection plan and replaced it with a state plan expected to impose fewer constraints on commerce. In explaining the decision, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said scientific evidence suggested that prospects for the salmon's survival had recently improved, in part due to new limits on deep-sea fishing. He also argued that by giving the state the lead, they would avoid a drawn-out legal battle, and therefore have a better chance of restoring salmon populations and protecting the local economy. "This plan stands a much better chance of bringing back salmon than inflexible command-and-control regulations from Washington," Maine Governor Angus King said in a statement Monday (15 December).
Some environmentalists question the science behind the decision and promise to stall the plan in court anyway. "The decision ignores ample biological evidence that salmon are threatened as much in their home rivers as in the ocean," and that wild salmon harbor unique genetic diversity, says David Carle of RESTORE: The North Woods, the Concord, Massachusetts-based environmental group that filed the original petition to list the salmon. "Maine's plan is an embarrassment," Carle concludes. "It isn't enforceable."