SEATTLE — A panel of federal appellate judges is being asked to decide whether the government should count hatchery-raised salmon and steelhead when considering the fish populations for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Lawyers for the building industry, farm and property rights groups asked Monday that the judges undo the listings of 16 West Coast salmon and steelhead populations under the act, arguing that thanks to abundant hatchery fish, the stocks are nowhere near extinction.
In its lawsuit, the Alsea Valley Alliance of Oregon challenged the listing of 16 salmon and steelhead populations as endangered in Washington, Oregon and California, claiming the government was lowballing its estimates of salmon and steelhead populations by counting only wild fish. The listing unnecessarily harms the economy by restricting development and agriculture to protect salmon habitat, the alliance argued.
U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan rejected the group's claims last year, finding that federal officials were not required to treat wild and hatchery fish identically.
Scientific studies have shown that wild and hatchery fish in a river may be genetically the same, they have behavioral differences that make wild fish more successful at surviving.
Environmentalists have argued that the point of the Endangered Species Act is to restore plant and animal populations to self-sustaining levels, without intervention from humans. But the Pacific Legal Foundation, which represents the Alsea plaintiffs, argues that the law is "intended to guard against the extinction of species, not to return ecosystems to the status and conditions they were in over 100 years ago."
In the Upper Columbia River, the National Marine Fisheries Service found that hatchery fish reduced the immediate risk that steelhead would go extinct. The agency accordingly softened the status of the steelhead from "endangered" to "threatened."
Fishermen and conservationists sued, arguing that it was irresponsible to reduce protections for wild fish based on high numbers of human-raised hatchery fish, and U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour in Seattle agreed.
Steelhead are rainbow trout that, like salmon, spawn in rivers but go to sea, where there is much more food, and return to their natal streams to spawn. As logging, farming, dam construction and urban development destroyed their river habitat, hatcheries have been built to fill the gap.