Freedomnomics

Article published Thursday , August 2, 2007, at Statesman Journal, Salem, Oregon.

Are salmon really endangered?

By Sonya D. Jones and John R. Lott Jr.

Is a fish born in a hatchery a different species from a fish of the same populations born in the wild?

Does it matter that hatcheries have been used to reintroduce populations into ecosystems where they ceased to exist? Does it matter that the offspring of a hatchery fish and so-called wild fish is considered wild?

There is a lot at stake in these questions, and even federal district court judges in the Pacific Northwest cannot seem to agree. In 2001, Judge Michael Hogan of the District of Oregon rejected the claim that hatchery and “naturally” spawned salmon were different. Because of that, he then rejected classifying the Oregon Coast coho as endangered.

But, in mid-June, Judge John C. Coughenour of the Western District of Washington ruled that “human interference” and the “unnatural” way that hatcheries maintain salmon populations was unlawful. Judge Coughenour then ordered that the Upper Columbia River steelhead remain on the endangered species list.

With these conflicting decisions, it is high time to finally figure out who is right and today the Pacific Legal Foundation is filing an appeal with the 9th Circuit Court to do just that.

The ultimate decision will dramatically affect a lot of people living in the Pacific Northwest. Protecting the salmon will make water much more difficult to obtain and, without irrigation permits, many farmers and ranchers will have to stop watering their crops and livestock. Large areas of private property will have to be set aside for any species listed as threatened or endangered. The commercial and recreational fishing industries in the Northwest, which generate more than $2 billion annually, will also be affected.

Promoting the survival of salmon is a worthy goal but does it really matter if a fish’s ancestors are from a hatchery or are naturally spawned? As it is, many so-called “wild” or naturally spawned salmon were all but gone and brought back through the use of hatcheries. Given that hatcheries have been around for over 100 years, it is extremely doubtful that any naturally spawned salmon lack ancestors who were not from a hatchery.

The Endangered Species Act is clear: “to provide a program for the conservation of ... endangered and threatened species.” But how do you define hatchery and naturally spawned fish as different species? There are no biological or genetic differences, the only way you can tell the fish apart is a clipped fin on hatchery fish. Environmental groups claim that some hatchery fish behave differently, but that is hard to take seriously. Why ignore all hatchery fish just because some behave differently?

But think where that logic ultimately leads. By defining different species based on behavior, how many different species of humans do you think that there would be?

The claimed distinction largely stems from hatchery and natural fish survival rates. Hatchery fish have a higher survival rate from egg to smolt, but a lower survival rate from smolt to adult. Yet, that is hardly surprising. Many of the weaker naturally spawned fish have already died off so that there are fewer of them to die off in the next stage. In the past, the government’s policies have lurched from one extreme to another.

The irony is that while the courts are today asking if the salmon are endangered, in the late 1990s, the State of Oregon ordered mass killings of salmon to dry up the food supply for predatory sea lions and drive them away from the damns. The eggs from these salmon were shipped to hatcheries in South America and the dead fish sent to canneries. Private land owners are now facing the brunt of costly government mistakes in the past.

These two court cases highlight the importance of balanced environmental policies. But if you are going to adopt policies that severely impact farming and ranching, it should actually accomplish something. The Pacific Legal Foundation’s appeal of Judge Coughenour’s decision will hopefully bring some logic to protecting the salmon.

*Pacific Legal Foundation, is representing the appellants in the case. John R. Lott, Jr. is the author of Freedomnomics and a senior research scholar at the University of Maryland.

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