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Coho controversy not as simple as it may seem

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PORTLAND, Ore. ? Controversy is brewing in Oregon over a federal judge's order to remove coho salmon from the endangered species list.

On Oct. 3, a group of environmental activists asked for permission to intervene in the case and asked for a stay of U.S. District Judge Paul Hogan's Sept. 10 ruling.

Hogan's ruling states that a 1998 decision by the National Marine Fisheries to list the Oregon coho salmon as a threatened species was 'arbitrary and capricious' because it only protected wild fish even though the agency also included hatchery fish as the same species.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber wants the National Marine Fisheries to appeal the ruling. The agency has not decided whether to grant Kitzhaber's request.

Meanwhile the environmental coalition of seven groups, calling themselves Earthjustice, said it probably will have to wait several weeks to find out if it will be allowed to enter the case. Since it was not party to the original case, Earthjustice will only be allowed to appeal the decision if allowed to intervene.

This is just the latest chapter in the saga over coho status. The issue surrounding the latest development is deeper and more complex than the usually simple scenario of conservationists versus conservatives. This is an issue in which the area's American Indian tribes find themselves positioned squarely in the middle.

At the heart is whether hatchery-raised coho salmon can be counted as coho salmon at all. There seems to be no uniform consensus and there are three schools of thought.

In the first camp, environmental activists say they believe that hatchery-raised fish are potentially damaging to the species as a whole. They believe that the hatchery-born fish do not develop the proper genetic material to make them viable to sustain future wild generations.

In the second camp are property rights groups which contend that salmon populations are healthy as a result of hatchery efforts. They say environmental groups are using the idea of wild salmon to hamper private property owners from doing what they want on their own land.

Finally there are the region's American Indian tribes whose position, in general, falls somewhere in the middle of these polarized groups. Many tribes in the region operate hatcheries and have tribal departments that deal with fishing issues.

Tribal fisheries sources say that while they disagree with the environmental organizations that hatchery-raised fish have no value, they also try to distance themselves from the property rights groups which say hatchery-raised fish can replace wild populations.

Tribes generally say they feel that while the coho salmon should not be de-listed as a result of the hatchery fish, these stocks should not be discounted as a strategy to restore coho populations.

Charles Hudson, the Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission's public affairs manager, explains the complexity of the issue and the precarious nature of the tribal position. While he acknowledges not all the tribes are in agreement, his position reflects a general consensus of the Columbia River tribes.

Hudson said his group agrees with Judge Hogan's decision that the National Marine Fisheries Services has excluded hatchery fish as part of its restoration efforts. However, while Hudson acknowledges that in combining the numbers of wild and hatchery fish, the population exceeds the numbers required for the federal endangered species list. But, he added, this simple count only tells half the story.

'You see, what we believe is that hatchery fish should be used as a strategy for restoring wild populations, but hatchery fish should not be counted as part of the total count to strip away the protections of being an endangered species,' Hudson said.

He condemns the federal government in some of its hatchery management. Of the 100 or so fish hatcheries in the Columbia River watershed, he said only one and a half currently are managed by the area's tribes. Though that number will increase to two and a half next year, it is clear the federal government is the predominant force in area hatcheries.

Hudson said the problem is that though the federal government, environmentalists and tribes share the ultimate goal, restoration of wild fish populations in the area, the debate is how to do it. He accuses the federal hatcheries of 'keeping the fish populations on life-support,' by not aggressively using hatcheries as a means to promote increases in fish populations.

Last year the Oregon state wildlife agencies destroyed, by electrocution and clubbing, somewhere in the neighborhood of 140,000 hatchery-raised coho salmon, identified by clipped fins, in part of a management strategy that Hudson called 'schizophrenic.' He said every year the state destroys these fish in the interest of keeping genetic wild stocks pure and only stocks the rivers for sport fishermen.

Hudson said the only river areas that have seen an increase in fish populations are those with hatcheries managed by tribes. He pointed to successes on the Yakima River in Washington, the Umatilla River in Oregon and the Clearwater in Idaho, all of which employed tribally run hatcheries as part of their re-population strategies.

One of those tribes, the Umatilla, support Hudson's position. Gary James, Umatilla fisheries program manager, agrees that hatchery fish need to be part of restoration strategies. He said government agencies should stop destroying fish populations and let them escape to spawn, but makes it clear that hatchery fish should only be used to supplement wild populations.

Property rights groups have been touting the record number of coho returning from the ocean this year as an impetus for delisting the species.

The Umatilla's position is typical of the middle ground taken by tribes on the issue. James said he thinks this is preposterous and that a few good years are not enough to determine the overall health of the coho populations.

At the same time James said he finds himself at odds with the environmental activists who want the rivers only populated with wild fish. He pointed out that river systems in the Northwest have been severely altered since the arrival of whites in the 19th century.

The Columbia and several other river systems have been so altered by dams, irrigation ditches and hydroelectric projects it would be impossible to recreate original conditions the wild fish lived in.

'Unless these dams are breached and the hydroelectric dams are taken out, a very unlikely scenario, you need hatcheries to help ensure the survival of the species,' James said.

Both Hudson and James said they believe hatcheries should not be part of restoration strategy in the few watersheds largely untouched by man, such as the John Day River in Oregon. However, they are dubious of the environmentalist ? whom they derisively refer to as 'genetic purists' ? claims that hatchery fish are genetically useless.

'These fish are the same species as the wild ones,' James said. 'We didn't grow them in a laboratory or something.'

Environmentalist Bill Bakke, who works with the Native Fish Society in Portland, said he thinks laboratory conditions in fish hatcheries have created conditions that amount to a genetically weakened fish. He claims it is a matter of record from scientific papers he has read that hatchery fish present a hazard to wild fish and have a negative genetic impact.

Bakke said a study of Deschutes River fish in Oregon, two generations removed from hatchery, had a much lower survival rate than the wild fish. He also said that when wild fish and hatchery fish interbreed their progeny do not survive at as high a rate as fish spawned from totally wild fish.

Additionally Bakke said there is no proof of hatchery fish creating self-sufficient wild populations. He said the perception that hatchery fish are creating a wild population are erroneous and on one-generation returns, and that in order to fully see if hatchery fish are becoming feral, one needs to look at the returns of two generations or more.

He also disagreed with Hudson and James claims that hatcheries are helping to replenish wild populations.

'Wild runs on the Umatilla River are declining. If supplementation was working, then the number of wild fish would be increasing. All you are seeing is an increase in hatchery fish there.'

Bakke said he believes the single most important aspect to maintaining wild fish populations is maintenance of the natural environment.

This places Bakke's views in direct opposition to those of Bill Moshofsky, a spokesman for the property rights group Oregonians In Action, a collection of conservative farm and timber groups.

Moshofsky's group has hailed the Hogan decision as a 'victory for wise use,' and said it feels the Endangered Species Act has been used as a tool to use against private property owners.

Moshofsky said claims by environmental groups that hatchery fish represent a separate Evolutionary Significant Unit, a federal designation under the Endangered Species Act that allows for protection of significant subspecies, is a misnomer and that all coho, whether hatchery raised or wild, represent the same species.

'Look, they (the coho) are coming back in record numbers this year. How can this species be considered endangered?' Moshofsky asked.

He scoffed at charges that habitat degradation has played a significant role in the decline of these species. He claims natural dangers presented by predators and ocean conditions are far more significant than watershed protection. He claims there is not solid science that links such things as pesticide runoff and urban development to declining fish runs.

'That's the most ludicrous thing that I've ever heard. There was not a definitive linking of smoking to lung cancer until the 1960s, but common sense had made people aware of potential dangers much earlier,' said Shane McKinney, who has worked previously with environmental groups on fish issues in the Pacific Northwest.

McKinney said emphatically it only takes a quick glance at wild fish and hatchery-raised fish of ostensibly the same species to see the difference.

Since all sides, except Oregonians In Action agree there is a difference between hatchery fish and wild fish, the deeper problem may be that no one is quite sure of the role of hatchery fish.

Hudson and James counter Bakke's arguments saying weaker genetics are better than none at all. They agree with Moshofsky that hatchery fish are of the same species, but strongly disagree they are as viable members as the wild cohos.

Furthermore Hudson, James and Moshofsky question the very notion of truly wild fish. They all say hatcheries have been in place for a hundred years and Hudson points out that fish have been transplanted from around the world to the Pacific Northwest during that period.

Moshofsky makes the unsubstantiated claim that 87 percent of fish considered wild originally were descended from hatchery stock.

Bakke said he is dubious of these claims. He said hatchery fish are doomed to failure in that they are based on an agricultural model more interested in raising stock. He said scant attention has been paid to raising fish in a way to provide full ecosystem enhancement. He said such conditions as taking fish from local genetic stock and creating conditions imperative for fish need to be taken into consideration.

On this point all parties agree. Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said the federal government is implementing these considerations in new plans. He said the federal government has changed its policies in the past few years and has now made population restoration a primary goal.

Gorman admitted excess fish are killed every year, but defended the action as necessary and said there is a danger in being tempted to replace wild fish populations with hatchery fish thus diluting the genetic stock.

He said the fish should be used to spawn in areas where the fish populations are at low levels and be kept away from healthy spawning grounds.

Finally, Gorman said he thinks there needs to be a holistic approach to fish management ? and Hudson, James and Bakke agreed.

'We need to make improvements in watershed conditions. The salmon's life cycle is so complex that it faces many, many potential man-made dangers along the way. The federal government, Indian tribes, environmentalists, timber, urban development, we all play a role, and ultimately the survival of the coho and other fish species depends on everyone working together.'