Bush’s fishy policy 

Attention fish eaters: If you visit the fish hatchery below Redfish Lake in Stanley, Idaho, when the salmon are running, you might get a treat. The fish, which have just finished an epic 950-mile swim from the Pacific, are captured and killed. Then their sperm and egg sacs are removed, and the rest of the fish is given away to whomever shows up to receive it. It’s a great way to acquire fresh, tasty fish.

Meanwhile, the extracted eggs are combined with the extracted sperm, and soon new fish are born. This might not seem like a natural or desirable moment in a fish’s life cycle, but under a new Bush administration plan, fish that are conceived this way will be counted along with wild, naturally spawning fish to determine official salmon populations.

This plan, which will be finalized in June, opens the door for the delisting of some of the 27 salmon species currently classified as endangered. Then, funding and protective actions designed to keep these salmon swimming will vanish.

Environmentalists, fishermen, and others are up in arms at this prospect, claiming it will be a major setback to salmon recovery. Meanwhile, some industry groups view the prospect of reduced salmon protections as good for business. Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), loggers and developers must abide by strict guidelines to protect riparian areas, farmers must share their water with the salmon, and dams must limit their hydroelectric productivity during salmon runs to make it easier for the fish to pass.

Many loggers and growers already consider themselves to belong to an endangered species, and view the salmon recovery efforts as pitting the fates of one endangered species—themselves—against the salmon. While a career change is usually easier to pull off than a species change, many in the industry are philosophical about the prospect of salmon extinction.

“I applaud the people that are trying to save species that are endangered,” said Gretchen Borck, a lobbyist with the Washington Association of Wheat Growers. “But it might be good that we don’t have dinosaurs now. We’ve gotten oil from the dinosaurs. If we had preserved the dinosaur, we wouldn’t have that oil.”

Oil, of course, might be part of the problem. Without that oil, there would be less carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, and hence lower temperatures, and most likely more precipitation, and more water to go around. So while some might praise the extinct dinosaurs for paving the way for the paving of the planet, others can blame them for our drought.

This argument is about more than just fish. An important aspect of the ESA is that in the process of protecting certain species, critical habitat is preserved as well. The northern spotted owl protection in the Pacific rainforests, for example, is about protecting old growth forest, too, and many of those same forest protections also benefit the salmon. Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski opposes Bush’s new plan, in part for this very reason, saying that preservation of native salmon runs is “about the restoration of water quality, restoration of stream banks and improving the general quality of the watershed.”

Meanwhile, the question remains: Is it correct to place hatchery salmon and wild spawning salmon in the same category?

David Moskowitz, of Oregon’s Wild Salmon Center, doesn’t think so. “This policy goes against a huge weight of scientific evidence” he says. “The ESA talks about the use of hatchery salmon as a tool for conserving species, not as a replacement. While hatchery salmon may be genetically indistinguishable from wild salmon, there are life cycle differences, and different expressions of those genes.” Egg counts in females returning to the Redfish Lake hatchery, for example, average about one-third the number of eggs in wild fish.

“Studies on the ability of hatchery fish to survive and produce another generation show that they are not as successful as wild fish. At this point we don’t know why,” he says. “But it might have to do with the courtship ritual, which is completely lost in the hatchery. In the wild, salmon choose their mate based on subtle clues, such as coloration, teeth…we don’t know much about what attracts salmon to each other.” Meanwhile, the smolts are raised in a uniform way, and are released all at once, which exposes the whole population simultaneously to the same environmental threats, such as a drought, or pollution events, or predators who gather in anticipation of the massive out-migration. With wild salmon, migrations are spread out over time, dividing the proverbial eggs among many baskets.

Redfish Lake is named after the color of the multitudes of sockeye salmon that once spawned there. In 1994, this thousands-of-years-old tradition was fatally interrupted when just one wild fish returned to Redfish Lake. The hatchery remains, offering life support to the fishery. But if the Bush policy considers a species on life support to be healthy enough for de-listing, it looks like another good reason to pull the plug on Bush.


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