Ecologically, hatchery salmon don’t cut it

When it comes to scientists, the Bush administration still defiantly puts them on “ignore.” Now, even expert advice specifically solicited by the government to comment on its efforts to save wild salmon is falling on deaf ears.

Hundreds of millions of hatchery-bred salmon are released into West Coast rivers annually and outnumber wild salmon four to one. At issue is whether these “domestic” fish should be counted when determining which wild species are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. While protecting salmon is costly for the government and local industries, allowing hatchery fish to be counted as wild fish will only give those industries license to continue habitat degradation and pollution.

In September 2001, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Hogan ruled that hatchery fish included in the same distinct population segments as genetically related wild fish must be counted with the wild fish. This ruling, while appeasing the farm, timber and power industries, is not scientifically sound, and the federal government failed to appeal it.

According to six salmon-ecology experts in the journal Science, the ruling is problematic because, on release, hatchery fish are larger than wild fish and can out-compete them, but their long-term survival is significantly reduced. Hatchery fish have different morphologies, migration and feeding behavior from wild fish, and hybrids breed poorly.

The scientists, asked by the government for input, found hatcheries cannot successfully maintain wild salmon populations. Conservation hatcheries can aid salmon recovery, but must be used sparingly. Hatcheries reduce a population’s fitness and ability to adapt, and these fish must be excluded from the wild fishes’ evolutionarily distinct species segments. But government officials later wrote off these conclusions, calling them “inappropriate for official government reports.”

Wild salmon are important in maintaining fragile habitats and predator-prey balances. Delisting species also encourages exploitation and overfishing of salmon streams. The Bush administration’s decision to the contrary only serves to mask these animals’ plight and reinforce the president’s unrelenting indifference to science.