In a decision with sweeping ramifications for conservation on the West Coast, the Bush Administration plans to count hatchery-raised fish along with wild fish in determining whether a Pacific salmon run is endangered. The move could leave some of 27 imperiled populations of salmon and steelhead trout without federal protection and ease development restrictions on millions of hectares where salmon spawn. Landowner groups are pleased, but environmentalists and some scientists are outraged. "This is not scientifically valid," fumes Ransom Myers of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
The government has long dumped fish raised in hatcheries into rivers to maintain commercially valuable stocks harmed by dam-building and other activities, but their effects on wild fish are controversial. In 2001, a federal judge ruled the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) treated hatchery fish inconsistently in its policymaking and ordered it to consider counting them when deciding whether a population is endangered (http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/summary/294/5548/1806">Science, 30 November 2001, p. 1806).
In a draft policy first reported last week by The Washington Post, NOAA says that "hatchery fish that are genetically no more than moderately divergent from a natural population ... will be considered" in deciding whether to add a specific population to the endangered list. NOAA Fisheries official James Lecky says that hatcheries "can be managed in a way that contributes to the conservation of endangered species" and that some hatchery fish should be counted.
The policy goes against advice from Myers and five other ecologists on a NOAA advisory panel, who recently argued that hatchery fish develop traits and behaviors ill-suited to the wild and that including them in salmon counts could allow wild fish to die out (Science, 26 March, p. 1980). Chris Wood of the environmental group Trout Unlimited says that "the absurdity of the decision" becomes clear if it's extrapolated to other animal populations. By the same logic, he says, elk raised on game farms should be counted in deciding whether wild elk are endangered.
A federal court has ordered NOAA to review the status of eight stocks now listed as endangered or threatened by 28 May. Lecky, who hopes to include all 27 in the review, says there will not be a "wholesale" delisting.