Conceding that using hatcheries to supplement dwindling salmon populations is harming wild salmon species in some cases, the Bush administration plans to move away from the practice in favor of a more direct solution: Catch fewer fish.
James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, announced the new policy Wednesday at a meeting of salmon scientists, many of whom have concluded that wild Pacific salmon will become practically extinct this century without big changes in how the harvest is managed.
“Our goal is to minimize and, where possible, eliminate the harvest of naturally spawning fish that provide the foundation for recovery,” Connaughton said in an interview with The Associated Press before his speech.
What about dams?
Critics said the change in tactics does not address the combination of factors that have severely reduced salmon runs, from overfishing and development to hydroelectric dams.
“Hatcheries were intended to replace habitat behind dams,” said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, which represents California commercial fishermen. “If they close all the hatcheries, we want some dams down, too.”
Connaughton said the administration has a strong commitment to the hydroelectric dams, which are important to the region’s economy.
Scientists have long criticized hatcheries as producers of salmon that dilute the gene pool, spread disease and compete with wild fish for food and habitat, while being less able to survive in the wild.
Connaughton did not say how much the administration wants to reduce the wild salmon harvest. He said NOAA Fisheries will review the 180 hatcheries in the Columbia Basin over the next year, shutting down those that harm salmon and helping others that contribute to recovery.
Connaughton said change will require the collaboration of regional federal regulators, Canada, Oregon, Washington and Indian tribes.
“We cannot improperly hatch and we cannot carelessly catch the wild salmon back to recovery,” Connaughton said.
$6 billion invested so far
About 2.75 million salmon are caught annually by commercial and sports fishermen in the Columbia and off the Pacific from Alaska, Canada and the West Coast.
Since 1991, 26 populations of salmon have been listed as threatened or endangered. None has been judged healthy enough to be delisted. Restoration efforts and technological fixes to dams have run up a bill of $6 billion over the past 10 years.
Connaughton, President Bush’s top environmental adviser, outlined the new policy at the Salmon 2100 Conference, where scientists gathered to consider new ways to prevent the extinction of wild salmon.
Current salmon runs are 5 percent of historical levels, said Robert Lackey, a fisheries scientist for the Environmental Protection Agency and chairman of the conference. Wild runs disappeared from Europe, most of Asia and the Northeast as hatchery populations grew.
Four drivers neglected
Lackey said Connaughton’s proposals did not address the four primary drivers of wild salmon declines — a market economy that gives salmon short shrift, rapid population growth, increasing demand for clean water, and human lifestyle choices that ignore the needs of fish.
Spain, of the fishermen’s group, said fishing accounts for only 5 percent of human-caused salmon deaths in the Columbia Basin, while hydroelectric dams account for 80 percent.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, which oversees Columbia River and Snake River salmon recovery, recently decided against requiring the Idaho Power Co. to add fish ladders on its Hells Canyon dams.
Environmentalists say adding the ladders as a condition for renewing the company’s permits would help the fish survive passage through the three-dam system. The utility, however, complained that the ladders — estimated to cost $100 million — would be too costly and ineffective.
In Nov. 16 e-mails obtained by The Associated Press, the agency said it is focusing instead on recommending Idaho Power set aside money to clean up the river above the dams so the waterway will one day provide good habitat for salmon and steelhead. Both are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.