Alliance challenges salmon reg

The Kitsap Alliance of Property Owners on Monday slapped the federal government with a petition urging officials to remove the threatened status from two Pacific Northwest salmon species listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Backed by Portland-based attorney James Buchal, and fueled by a recent U.S. District Court decision, the grassroots group is driving for equal consideration of hatchery and wild salmon stocks that make up two specific threatened species inhabiting Kitsap County waters.

The two salmon species dependent on Kitsap habitat and currently listed as threatened under the ESA are the Puget Sound chinook and the Hood Canal Summer chum.

At issue is a federal government practice wherein Puget Sound chinook and summer chum populations are defined to include both wild salmon and hatchery stocks. The flip side to that policy — and the illogical side, according to the Kitsap Alliance — is that, in terms of ESA protection, hatchery populations aren’t always considered along with wild stocks to determine whether a species is threatened or endangered.

“If you’re going to define a salmon species as one that includes both wild and hatchery fish, you need to protect all of them, not just a subset,” said Buchal. “It’s an irrational construct that has never made any sense.”

National Marine Fisheries Service spokesman Brian Gorman confirmed the federal government doesn’t always consider hatchery populations when determining whether to list a salmon as endangered or threatened under the ESA for several reasons.

Wild fish are much more likely than hatchery fish to naturally propagate the species. The thought is that until there are enough wild fish spawning in a region, the species to which it belongs hasn’t yet recovered and can’t be removed from the ESA listing.

Hatchery fish don’t always enter that equation, he said.

“Hatchery fish have to be included in the federal assessment along with wild fish,” said KAPO executive director Vivian Henderson. “Hatchery and wild fish use the same habitat and streams. If the hatchery fish are counted in addition to the wild, then there would be no endangered salmon species in Kitsap County.”

Buchal, working on behalf of KAPO and the Skagit County Cattlemen’s Association, crafted the petition against the federal government based on a ruling handed down by U.S. District Court Judge Micheal Hogan in early September.

In essence, Hogan ruled that, as a matter of protection, the federal government can’t separate hatchery fish from wild fish within a specific population for purposes of protection under the ESA.

Although Hogan’s ruling specifically referred to the federal government’s management of Oregon Coastal coho, the Alliance argues the decision can have more wide-ranging effects on salmon protection practices across the country and in Kitsap County.

Gorman disagrees.

“The only immediate effect Hogan’s decision has is on the Oregon Coast coho,” he said. “There are 25 other unaffected salmon species along the West Coast.”

According to Gorman, the National Marine Fisheries Service can take up to 90 days to deliver a response to the petition submitted by the Kitsap grass-roots group.

If, at that time, the federal agency opts to agree with the petition, it could be two years before the two Pacific Northwest salmon species are delisted — if at all.

Meanwhile, Kitsap County continues to negotiate a comprehensive salmon protection plan with the federal government. The negotiations could be complete by the end of the year. That has Kitsap Alliance members particularly worried. They say the county should promote voluntary efforts to restoration and preservation, rather than imposing land-use regulations for salmon protection.

Aside from that hands-off philosophy, KAPO members want to see delisted the chinook and chum salmon currently considered threatened. Right away.

Gorman says it’s too soon to tell how the federal agency will react to the petition, which is an administrative matter rather than an item brought forward in a court room.

Even so, KAPO members and Buchal are confident the argument they present can stand. And if the federal government doesn’t agree with the petition and refuses to delist the chinook and chum, the alliance plans to consider taking the matter to trial.

“Going to trial is another step entirely,” said Jean Sherrard, the president and founder of KAPO. “Before we make a final decision on that, we would consult with the Pacific Legal Foundation, a nonprofit group, and we would have to have vote of the board.”

Sherrard said the legal foundation represented Oregon property owners in the case Hogan presided over recently.

Now the Kitsap Alliance is trying to utilize the same logic in that case to fight its cause in the Puget Sound region.

“I guess the ultimate question is, is there really a genetic difference between the wild salmon and hatchery salmon,” said Henderson.

The federal government and fish recovery specialists working at hatcheries scattered throughout the Puget Sound would argue there is a genetic difference.

That’s why the federal government often distinguishes between wild and hatchery fish when determining whether a species is threatened or endangered.

“Hatcheries are critical to the recovery of a species and are especially critical in an urban environment,” said Paul Dorn, a biologist with the Suquamish Tribe.

Dorn helps operate two brood stock hatcheries in East Kitsap on behalf of the tribe. The hatcheries are supposed to protect rather than interfere with wild runs and provide angling opportunities.

“But wild fish are genetically more diverse and strong and fit to survive,” he said. “Wild fish are used to being selected against and they are the successor of thousands of years of survival. Their genetics are stronger and everything about them is geared toward survival.”

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