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Comments on NOAA Fisheries Proposed Policy on the Consideration of Hatchery-Origin Fish in Endangered Species Act Listing Determinations for Pacific Salmon and Steelhead


Submitted by:

Washington Trout, November 12, 2004


To: Garth Griffin,
Branch Chief, Protected Resources Division, NOAA Fisheries

525 NE Oregon St., Suite 500

Portland, OR  97232 – 2737


Prepared by:

Nick Gayeski, WT Resource Analyst;

Ramon Vanden Brulle, WT Communications Director



Washington Trout has reviewed NOAA Fisheries’ “Proposed Policy on the Consideration of Hatchery-Origin Fish in Endangered Species Act Listing Determinations for Pacific Salmon and Steelhead” (69 Fed. Reg. 31354, June 3, 2004), as well as relevant scientific literature (including cited references). Enclosed for the record and your consideration are Washington Trout’s  comments on NOAA Fisheries’ Proposed Policy. Based on our review of the proposed policy, the references cited, attendance at public hearings, personal communication with NOAA employees and consultation with other scientists and professionals, we recommend that NOAA abandon the proposed hatchery policy and exclude hatchery fish from listing decisions under the Endangered Species Act.


We find the proposed Policy fundamentally inadequate on several counts. The proposed policy lacks the details necessary to render it capable of being objectively applied to any specific case. The proposed policy fails to articulate any credible scientific basis for the directions that it provides. The proposed policy is inconsistent with NOAA Fisheries’ statutory obligations under the Endangered Species Act.


The policy is to provide objective guidance to the Service with respect to two critical issues: the determination of whether or not a particular salmonid hatchery population is to be considered a component of a particular salmonid ESU, and if so whether or not the presence of such a hatchery population reduces the extinction risk of the naturally spawning populations in the ESU to an extent that listing is not warranted. The proposed policy fails to provide detailed and scientifically credible guidance on these two issues. The language of the proposed policy reflects simplified, misleading, and/or unsubstantiated assumptions about the known and the suspected harmful impacts on the fitness of naturally spawning salmonid populations of genetic interactions between hatchery and wild salmonids. These inadequacies render the proposed policy subject to arbitrary and capricious application and would make it impossible for an independent observer to determine whether or not that policy had been accurately and conscientiously applied in any specific case.


NOAA Fisheries has no foundation for any claim that the genetic resources available in hatchery populations offer any potential value to the recovery, conservation, or sustainability of naturally spawning wild salmonid populations and the ecosystems they depend on, particularly in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence of the ecological and genetic risks hatchery salmonids pose to wild populations. This conclusion is supported by the preponderance of current scientific literature, and the guidance provided by NOAA Fisheries’ own independent scientific-advisory panels.


The ESA’s primary focus of species in their natural habitat precludes the listing of hatchery fish. Because hatchery fish are products of artificial propagation and are unable to persist without perpetual human intervention, they are ineligible for an ESA listing. 


The proposed hatchery policy starts from a premise that the Endangered Species Act allows for the inclusion of hatchery fish in listing decisions.  However, the ESA expressly spells out as among its core purposes “to provide a means whereby ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved.”  16 U.S.C. § 1531(b).  The focus of the ESA on ecosystems, the mechanisms for listing, delisting, and recovering the species, the definitions of “species” and “conserve,” Congressional intent, the Act’s legislative history, and prior precedent with other listings simply do not allow for any result that includes hatchery fish in listing decisions. 


The ESA’s emphasis on ecosystems cannot be overstated.  An ecosystem is not just the animal; it is not just the habitat; it is the relationship between the two. By stressing the importance of ecosystem protection, Congress made it clear that the Act does not separate a species from its habitat and seeks to protect the ability of species to sustain themselves in and as a component of their natural environments. On the other hand, the intention to continue protecting natural environments cannot be the sole goal of “ecosystem” recovery. The “system” at issue is the interaction between habitats and animal populations, each shaping, maintaining, and sustaining the other.


Even in pristine habitat conditions, animal populations degraded by domestication and other threats to genetic fitness may not contribute meaningfully and functionally to many locally-adapted ecosystem processes, compromising the conservation of the native ecosystem upon which the very animal species depends. If the degraded animal population cannot sustain itself at adequate levels of abundance without continual human intervention, neither the species nor the ecosystem upon which it depends is being conserved.   If you change a component of the ecosystem, the entire “system” is at least changed (in this instance likely degraded, as suggested by the overwhelming preponderance of scientific evidence and opinion).


The statutory purpose of the Act is to “provide a means whereby ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved.” (Emphasis added.) In this case, the proposed policy could likely result in the creation of an “ecosystem” that included a mix of minimally to moderately conserved habitats, significantly modified habitats, and some seriously degraded habitats, interacting with a genetically altered animal that requires continual human intervention to maintain adequate levels of abundance. The purpose of the ESA simply cannot accommodate an attempt to create a modified ecosystem upon which threatened and endangered species might depend, particularly without strong scientific foundation. We recommend that the proposed policy be withdrawn.


The proposed Policy consists of five points. Below are specific comments directed to each point in the order in which they are presented in the Federal Register Notice.


Point #1

Point #1 of the proposed policy states “A key feature of the ESU concept is the recognition of genetic resources that represent the ecological and genetic diversity of the species. These genetic resources can reside in a hatchery (hatchery fish) as well as in a fish spawned in the wild (natural fish).” FR 69, 107: 31358.


Stated in this way, point #1 is misleading. The genetic resources germane to the ecological and genetic diversity of a species are the resources directly related to the fitness of individuals within populations over multiple generations. Measures of genetic relatedness between populations or stocks of fish and molecular genetic markers that are used to measure or to estimate gene flow between individuals and populations are rarely related to the fitness of individuals and populations. Estimates of the amount of gene flow between an indigenous naturally spawning salmonid population and a hatchery population, for example, provide no direct information about either the fitness of the natural population or the impact of the genetic exchange with the hatchery population on the fitness of the indigenous population (See, for example, the discussion of introgression between subgroups within major ancestral lineages in Utter 2001).


Directional selection for adaptation to the hatchery environment and to the life cycle of which hatchery production is a systemic component is widely acknowledged to be an inevitable result of hatchery programs.(Waples 1999, Reisenbichler and Rubin 1999, Goodman, in press, Reisenbichler in press). The fact that a hatchery population was founded from members of the local indigenous population and regularly incorporates progeny of natural spawning members of that population as hatchery broodstock therefore provides no assurance that reproductive interactions in the wild between hatchery and naturally spawned fish do not have harmful impacts on the fitness of the local naturally spawning population (Goodman, in press; Lynch and O’Hely 2001, Ford 2002). Such a hatchery population would be a Category 1a in the lexicon of the SSHAG 2003 report referenced in the preliminary material accompanying the statement of the proposed policy in the Federal Register Notice (op. cit. 31358). Category 1a hatchery populations and local wild populations can be identical at loci of neutral markers used to measure gene flow and to characterize genetic “similarity”, yet be divergent in characters relevant to fitness in the wild. Both theoretical genetic considerations (O’Hely and Lynch 2001, Ford, 2002, Goodman, in press) and empirical data (Reisenbichler and McIntyre 1977, Resienbichler and Rubin 1999, Utter 2001, Waples 1999, Chilcote, 2003, Reisenbichler in press) attest to this. Selectively neutral genetic markers will provide evidence only of gene flow, not fitness impacts.


The statement at issue in point #1, interpreted as a claim about the fitness of a hatchery fish relative to members of the wild population from which it was derived, is likely to be true only for the progeny of first-generation hatchery fish in a captive broodstock program. Such a statement would have to be silent with regard to the ability of such hatchery fish to contribute to the recovery of the wild population from which they had been directly derived in the immediate past, particularly if the hatchery is to remain a regular component of the life cycle of the fish. In this single case, however, the existence of hatchery fish within the ESU would presuppose that the ESU were already in a condition that justified ESA listing. It could not be used to justify a refusal to list.


The assertion in point #1 that such “genetic resources can reside in a hatchery… as well as in a fish spawned in the wild” misleadingly implies that neutral markers providing evidence of significant gene flow between hatchery and local wild populations or that show genetic similarity between hatchery and local wild fish also provide evidence that the fitness of the hatchery fish in the wild is identical or similar to fish in the wild population. That implication is false. NOAA Fisheries should take great care to explain in considerably greater detail what is intended by such assertions and should cite the specific scientific literature that supports them.


Point #1 fails to address or acknowledge that NOAA Fisheries lacks the capability to accurately determine the relative value of the genetic resources related to fitness that may be available in hatchery populations. The Independent Scientific Advisory Board of the NW Power Planning Council released in 2003 a Review of Salmon and Steelhead Supplementation for the Columbia Basin (ISAB 2003). The findings of the ISAB Supplementation Reviewsupport the conclusion that NOAA Fisheries has no current scientific basis for determining the fitness of hatchery salmon relative to wild salmon, or for evaluating any beneficial impacts to wild populations from genetic interactions with hatchery populations. NOAA Fisheries has no foundation for any claim that the genetic resources available in hatchery populations offer any potential value to the recovery, conservation, or sustainability of naturally spawning wild salmonid populations and the ecosystems they depend on, particularly in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence of the ecological and genetic risks hatchery salmonids pose to wild populations, and the poor procedures and performance of existing programs documented in the ISAB review.


Of the eight principal Findings presented in the review, six deal directly with the “substantial risks” presented by hatchery supplementation, or the lack of any adequate “empirical basis” for determining either the costs or the benefits to natural populations of even the best planned and executed hatchery supplementation efforts currently being operated in the Columbia Basin. The review finds that evaluation efforts are “inadequate,” that the correct parameters are not being measured, that current hatchery programs are “unlikely” to provide “convincing quantification” of hatchery impacts, that key hypotheses have been left “unevaluated,” and that any risk/benefit analysis of hatchery impacts would be “dominated by the high level of scientific uncertainty” (emphasis added). Abridged excerpts from the relevant Findings are provided below:


Finding 1: Hatchery programs in the Columbia River Basin provide some salmon harvest and reintroduction opportunities.  Those hatchery programs which are based on hatchery broodstock lines, and which allow the hatchery products to interact intensively with natural populations, almost certainly impose a large cost on the affected natural populations.  For hatchery programs where the hatchery and natural population are integrated, the empirical basis is inadequate for determining the cost to the natural population.The impacts of these hatchery programs on the extinction risk to (or recovery of) the remaining natural populations of salmon and steelhead have not been determined empirically.  These knowledge gaps need to be filled. 


Finding 2: Contemporary genetic/evolutionary theory, and the literature that supports it, indicate clearly that supplementation presents substantial risks to natural populations of salmon and steelhead.Supplementation can affect the adaptation of natural populations to their environment by altering genetic variation within and among populations, a process that can negatively affect a population's fitness through inbreeding depression, outbreeding depression, and/or domestication selection.


Finding 4.  Current monitoring and evaluation efforts are inadequate to estimate either benefit or harm from ongoing supplementation projects.  The correct parameters are not being consistently measured.


Finding 5.  Columbia River Basin supplementation projects are considered to be ‘experimental.’  Unfortunately, inadequate replication and widespread failure to include unsupplemented reference streams coupled with a lack of coordination among projects make it unlikely that these projects (as currently conducted) will provide convincing quantification of the benefits or harm attributable to supplementation.


Finding 7.  Many hypotheses and conjectures concerning supplementation are largely unevaluated.  This finding is based on our review of case histories of Columbia River Basin supplementation programs. 


Finding 8.  With our current knowledge base, a technically valid risk-benefit analysis of supplementation is dominated by the high level of scientific uncertainty about the possible magnitudes of the potential beneficial and detrimental effects.


The ISAB summarizes the substance of the review in a single sentence: “Currently available empirical information is inadequate to predict the outcome of a thoughtful conservative supplementation effort for any potential target population or on collective populations ….” (Emphasis added. It should be noted that the bulk and substance of the review describes how few such “thoughtful conservative” efforts currently exist.)

The ISAB seems to be declaring quite clearly that it finds no empirical basis for the supposition that the genetic resources available in hatchery populations can contribute meaningfully to the recovery or conservation of naturally spawning wild salmonid populations.


NOAA Fisheries’ Salmon Recovery Science Review Panel issued a report of Panel meetings held July 2003, to discuss “how modification or closure of hatcheries provides NOAA Fisheries with opportunities to investigate the experimental effects of hatcheries on wild populations” (RSRP 2003). The RSRP specifically endorsed the findings and recommendations of the ISAB Review, and made several findings and recommendations of its own. The RSRP found, among other things, that “questions on the negative impact of hatchery fish on wild stocks abound …, while scant progress has been made toward investigation and resolution of this major topic.” The report noted that “In all examples that the RSRP has been able to locate, when experiments were conducted to test claims for the success of hatcheries in promoting the conservation of naturally spawning fish, the initial claims have been proven false.”


The 2003 RSRP report originally included substantive technical guidance for policy considerations specific to the proposed policy. NOAA Fisheries expressed displeasure with the panel’s conclusions and requested that those portions of the report not be published. However, the panel did publish an abridged version its scientific conclusions in Science, one of the premier peer-reviewed scientific journals in the world.  In that article, the scientists conclude “including hatchery fish in an ESU confounds risk of extinction in the wild with ease of captive propagation and ignores important biological differences between wild and hatchery fish….[h]atchery fish should not be included as part of an ESU.”  (Myers et. al. 2004).


The ISAB Supplementation Review was executed in response to specific queries from NOAA Fisheries. The RSRP was convened by NOAA Fisheries specifically to advise the agency on scientific matters of salmonid-recovery management. Despite the clear guidance of its own independent science-advisory panels, NOAA Fisheries builds the foundation of this proposed policy on the misleading implication that it can determine the value of the genetic resources that reside in hatchery fish to the ecological and genetic diversity of an ESU.


NOAA has no foundation or support for assertions in preliminary information included in the Federal Register Notice regarding the potential benefits of artificial propagation. NOAA can provide no empirical support for the efficacy of “recent changes in hatchery practices,” and does not attempt to describe the scope of those changes, which has so far been severely limited. NOAA cites “developing science” on the positive effects of hatchery programs for justification for the proposed policy, but cannot provide convincing quantification of any positive effects at all.


The FR Notice describes “potential contributions” from artificial propagation, but cannot provide any support for assertions that hatchery augmentation can provide any potential for reestablishing “self-sustaining populations,” or that it can “facilitate recovery.” That is equivalent to the assertion that long-term fitness of progeny of naturally spawning hatchery-origin individuals is comparable to the fitness of progeny from natural-origin individuals.  In the Supplementation Review, the ISAB found that, “this assertion is unevaluated in programs following an integrated breeding protocol, and it is contradicted by empirical evidence on the natural spawning performance of domesticated hatchery strains.”


The FR Notice claims, “there can be no uniform conclusion about the potential contribution of hatchery-origin fish to the survival of an ESU.” But NOAA clearly has a preponderance of scientific evidence to rely on in this regard. Both the ISAB and the RSRP clearly noted that conventional hatchery practices “almost certainly” impose high negative impacts on natural populations, that no convincing evidence of positive impacts from “well-designed” conservation programs currently exists, and that the current risks from those programs are high enough that they should be restricted and/or scaled back until a better empirical basis can be established for determining the costs or benefits from conservation-based hatchery supplementation. The FR Notice provides a hypothetical example of how hatchery fish, “carefully reared under semi-natural conditions,” could potentially effect “an important contribution to the rebuilding or support” of native populations. But this is exactly the type of hypothesis that the ISAB and RSRP found “unevaluated,” or “proven false,” and current evidence indeed suggests that these types of measures have not resulted in the increased fitness of hatchery salmonids.


The central premises underpinning the proposed policy, that the genetic resources residing in hatchery populations can contribute to the conservation of listed wild-salmonid populations, and that NOOA can identify and evaluate those genetic resources, are based on unsupported assertions and misleading implications, and they are inconsistent with guidance offered by at least two of NOAA Fisheries’ own science-advisory panels.   


Point #2

Point #2 of the proposed Policy states that hatchery fish “with a level of genetic divergence between the hatchery stocks and the local natural populations that is no more than what would be expected between closely related populations within the ESU (a) are considered part of the ESU, (b) will be considered in determining whether an ESU should be included in any listing of the ESU…” (op. cit.). For reasons similar to those raised in regard to point #1, this is misleading and does not withstand close scrutiny. Measures of genetic similarity employ neutral molecular genetic markers. Such markers are appropriate for management issues that are unrelated to the fitness of populations and distinct population segments under the ESA. The level of genetic similarity or divergence that is relevant in an ESA context concerns fitness and local adaptation – the fitness of local natural populations that are adapted to unique attributes of their local environment.


Part (b) of the definition of an ESU requires a DPS to “represent an important component of the evolutionary legacy of the species”. This is clearly intended to address aspects of fitness involving both local adaptation and the ability of species and populations to respond evolutionarily to changing environmental conditions. From this perspective there is a huge difference between a case involving two local populations within an ESU that differ in similarity at loci of neutral genetic markers because they have been adapting to different spatial environments within the ESU (which may also include different temporal dynamics in key variables that affect fitness), and a case involving one hatchery and one wild population that display a similar level of neutral genetic difference. In the former case, it is clear that both wild populations contain distinct elements of the evolutionary legacy of the ESU, and are both essential to the evolutionary resilience of the ESU. Both are different at neutral genetic markers and the difference flags a real difference in the ecological niches to which they each are adapted. But the genetic difference does not throw into question that each is fit and is adapted to a part of the environment of the ESU. This is unlikely to be the true in the latter case (Utter 2001).


In the case involving one hatchery and one wild population, a difference identified with neutral molecular markers may be due to the hatchery population having been founded from a non-local population or to its having been founded from the wild population from which it subsequently diverged due to genetic drift and/or selection within the hatchery. In either case the fact that a hatchery population is involved is putative evidence that there is a real fitness difference in the wild between hatchery fish and wild fish. Since the hatchery fish have no ecological niche in the wild, it is unlikely in the extreme that such a hatchery population could be part of the evolutionary legacy of the ESU. Consequently, such hatchery fish should not qualify for inclusion in the ESU (See also, Myers et al 2004). If such hatchery populations cannot be included in the ESU, they cannot be considered in the determination of whether or not to list an ESU.


NOAA Fisheries appears to have chosen to approach the issue of how to consider hatchery fish in listing decisions from the point of view of finding reasons not to exclude hatchery fish from an ESU. This approach requires that the concept of genetic similarity and difference at neutral loci bear all of their argumentative weight.


NOAA Fisheries should approach the issue from the opposite direction of considering the fitness of wild populations and the need to preserve and recover locally-adapted naturally spawning populations. This would be consistent with both parts of definition of an ESU. The hatchery problem then becomes a problem of deciding under what evidentiary conditions a hatchery population can be considered to be of equal fitness to a local wild population with which it may interact. The relevant notion of ‘equal fitness’ would include local adaptation and evolvability – the ability to continue a part of the evolutionary legacy of the species in the local environment. This would quickly be seen to require a considerably more rigorous evaluation of the fitness of hatchery populations and the measurement of hatchery impacts on the fitness of wild populations. Such considerations must be at the center of any scientifically credible hatchery policy. The proposed policy completely fails in the regard.


The standard of a level of genetic divergence “no more than what would be expected between closely related populations within the ESU” is inappropriately vague and overbroad, and provides potential for abuse of the policy. Citizen-suit/enforcement provisions of the ESA require clear, objective, consistent standards, so that public advocates and other interested parties can evaluate agency performance relative to the policy, or challenge actions inconsistent with the policy. In this case, the line between consistency or inconsistency with the standard is not apparent, making it difficult for advocates to evaluate or challenge performance relative to the policy, and inviting abuse of the standard.


The Hatchery Policy imposes a separate, distinct and conflicting test from the ESU policy only to hatchery fish. The ESU test for wild fish is whether a group of salmon or steelhead populations are 1) sufficiently reproductively isolated and 2) contribute to the evolutionary legacy of the species.  However, the test as to whether hatchery fish are in the ESU is whether or not they display a level of genetic divergence “no more than what would be expected between closely related populations within the ESU.”  The standard is not only arbitrarily vague; it is inappropriately distinct from and less rigorous than the standard applied to wild fish populations for consideration as components of the same ESU. This is inconsistent with the requirements of the ESA.


Point #3

Point #3 of the proposed Policy appears to merely state the obvious legal point that the ESA requires the conservation of naturally-spawning fish and the ecosystems on which they depend. But it fails to simply and directly state just that. It states the value of viable wild populations to the overall health of an ESU, then concludes by stating that such “natural populations, particularly those with minimal genetic contribution from hatchery fish, can provide a point of comparison for the evaluation of the effects of hatchery fish on the likelihood of extinction of the ESU” (op. cit.). It is unclear what place such a remark has in the statement of a policy concerning how to evaluate hatchery populations when (a) describing an ESU and (b) listing an ESU. While it is indeed true that more research on the fitness of hatchery fish in the wild and on the impacts of hatchery fish on naturally spawning local populations is desirable, it is odd to vaguely hint at the need in the statement of a federal policy – which presumably is already founded on the best current scientific understanding.


What NOAA Fisheries appears to be hinting at in point #3 is that healthy populations of wild fish within a listed ESU may permit hatchery programs that impact other populations within the ESU to continue provided that some monitoring of their impact on those populations is conducted. This would hardly be consistent with NOAA Fisheries obligation to recover a listed ESU.


If what NOAA Fisheries intends is to state the need for more rigorous research into the potential harmful impacts of hatchery programs and practices on wild populations or the need for more rigorous evaluation of the belief that some kinds of hatchery practices may benefit the recovery of ESA-listed wild populations and ESUs, this should be plainly stated in the Background to the proposed Policy in the Federal Register Notice. NOAA Fisheries did not do this but it would have been appropriate. In particular, the ISAB Supplementation Review and the RSRP 2003 report have recently articulated the research required in this regard, but NOAA Fisheries has steadfastly ignored these recommendations.


Both the ISAB and the RSRP have articulated the numerous risks to the fitness of wild populations and to their recovery posed by current hatchery practices and programs. Both have provided extensive summaries and discussion of the relevant scientific literature. Both have stressed the necessity for evaluating hatchery impacts by employing proper experimental designs using paired comparisons within ESUs between populations that have hatchery programs and those that do not. Specifically, each review has called for planned hatchery closures to create properly paired experimental treatments for long-term study.


NOAA Fisheries could have supported these reviews by articulating the need for such studies. However, this would have contradicted the sanguine tone of the proposed policy with regard to the evaluation of hatchery populations in ESU listing decisions. Indeed Point #3 is misleading in that while it implies an intent by NOAA Fisheries to apply the policy to conserve “naturally spawning salmon,” it makes no firm or enforceable commitment to do so. 


Point #4

Point #4 contains the substance of the proposed Policy. The point appears to address the relationship of hatchery populations to ESU status in regard to the four attributes characterized in NOAA Fisheries’ Viable Salmonid Populations (VSP) document (McElhany et al. 2000): abundance, productivity, genetic diversity, and spatial distribution.


“The effects of hatchery fish on the status of an ESU will depend on which of the four key attributes is limiting the ESU, and how the hatchery fish within the ESU affect each of the attributes. The presence within an ESU of hatchery fish with a level of genetic divergence between the hatchery stocks and the local natural populations that is no more than what would be expected between closely related populations within the ESU can affect the status of the ESU, and, thereby, affect the listing determination, by contributing to increasing abundance and productivity of the ESU, by improving spatial distribution, and by serving as a source population for repopulating unoccupied habitat (op. cit.)”



No specific criteria are provided concerning how the effects of hatchery fish on each of the four attributes of the ESU are to be determined. There is nothing in this key point that would enable any impartial observer to determine whether the proposed policy was being adhered to or not in any case in which an ESU was described or one with regard to which a listing decision was being made.


The point concludes with the sentence “In evaluating the effect of hatchery fish on the status of an ESU, the presence of a long-term hatchery monitoring and evaluation program is an important consideration (op. cit., 31359)”. Again, there are no clear and objective standards provided in accordance with which to evaluate alleged hatchery monitoring programs. Neither is any clear guidance given concerning how much weight such an “important consideration” is to be accorded. It is not at all apparent that any evaluation could fail to be in compliance with such a policy.


Point #4 is irreconcilable with the findings of the ISAB Supplementation Review and the 2003 RSRP report. NOAA Fisheries apparently has no empirical basis for making any determinations regarding the contribution of hatchery populations to the productivity or genetic diversity of an ESU. See comments on Points #1 - #3. 


Point #4 also relies heavily on the questionable notion of genetic similarity discussed under points 1 – 3 in allowing hatchery populations to (a) be included in an ESU, and (b) affect the evaluation of the status of the ESU. We have already commented on (a), so we direct our comments to (b). Point #4 would permit hatchery populations (with appropriate levels of genetic similarity) to affect the status of an ESU “by contributing to increased abundance and productivity of the ESU”. This statement is woefully vague and incomplete. No criteria are given by which ‘productivity’ is to be characterized or measured. Absent such criteria there can be no objective standard. However productivity may be measured (adult recruits per spawner, number of smolt migrants per spawner, for example), any credible measure must be related to the fitness of the wild population over several generations. One of the most fundamental concerns about the harmful impacts of hatchery fish on wild populations involves the likelihood that naturally spawning hatchery fish and hatchery-wild crosses have reduced productivity relative to indigenous wild populations (wild-wild crosses) (E.g., Waples 1999, Utter 2001, Reisenbichler and Rubin 1999, Reisenbichler in press, Goodman in press, Ford 2002, Lynch and O’Hely 2001, ISAB 2003, RSRP, 2003, Meyers et al 2004). Hatchery production can easily increase the abundance of naturally spawning populations in the short-term when they are allowed to spawn in the wild. But the relevant issue for ESA purposes is whether such short-term artificial population increases can reduce the fitness of the naturally spawning fish thereby increasing their likelihood of extinction. The vague language about abundance and productivity employed in point #4 obfuscates this fundamental issue.


The same criticisms can be applied to the assertions that hatchery fish can improve “the spatial distribution” and serve “as a source population for repopulating unoccupied habitats”. Hatchery fish may easily swamp a habitat if they are produced in enough numbers and enough returning adults allowed to escape within the river basin from which they were released. But the relevant issue is whether or not they will persist over multiple generations by reproducing on their own or with wild fish in the absence of a continued subsidy of strays from the hatchery. In fact, there is no evidence that this can occur or that it has. But even if there were some evidence to support such claims, a federal policy requires clear objective protocols and standards for evaluating specific cases. In particular, NOAA Fisheries is legally obligated under the ESA to assure that naturally spawning salmonid populations do not bear the risks of uncertainties and risky assumptions about the hoped-for benefits to wild populations from programs and practices that are principally directed at other ends – such as the production of animals for consumption.


No specific, objective guidance is offered regarding the relative weight each of the four identified parameters would be assigned in making determinations about the contributions of hatchery populations to the conservation of an ESU. If a hatchery population or complex of hatchery populations was determined to provide little or a negative contribution to the productivity and genetic diversity of an ESU, but did provide a significant boost to ESU abundance and spatial distribution, how would the hatchery population(s) be judged relative to the status of the ESU? How would the public evaluate whether that judgment was consistent with the policy?  At the very least, significant clarification is required in this regard. As written, the proposed policy is too vague to be evaluated or challenged, and is exposed to risk of abuse. Clear, objective, measurable standards should be articulated for evaluating a hatchery population’s contribution to each of the identified parameters, as well as for assigning relative weight to each of the parameters.


In brief, point #4 is so vague and relies so heavily on scientifically unsubstantiated assertions and assumptions that it can provide no credible and objective standard by which NOAA Fisheries staff can evaluate data regarding hatchery populations in determining the status of salmonid ESUs under the ESA. For this reason alone, the proposed policy is inadequate and should be withdrawn.


Point #5

Point #5 would permit harvest of hatchery populations that are members of ESUs listed as threatened under the ESA. As we have argued in the comments on points 1 – 4, NOAA Fisheries has failed to make a scientifically credible case that hatchery populations should be considered as part of an ESU or that they should be considered in a listing decision. Setting this aside, however, point #5 clearly goes too far in claiming discretion under section 4(d) to allow harvest of listed hatchery fish that are allegedly surplus to recovery needs. The putative motivation for discretion to allow harvest of listed hatchery fish is ”fulfilling trust and treaty obligations with regard to harvest of some Pacific salmon populations.” It is important to note that NOAA Fisheries has yet to clearly articulate the legal weight of their putative trust responsibilities vis a vis their responsibility to enforce the ESA.


Assuming that NOAA Fisheries could make a case that obligations to enforce the ESA are in specific ways outweighed by trust responsibilities, this would require that both a minimum and a maximum level of harvest specifically for trust purposes be allowed. Hatchery production in listed ESUs where hatchery populations were, ex hypothesis, shown to be components of the ESUs would then have to be scaled so as to meet both conservation and trust harvest requirements. This is what NOAA Fisheries should be attempting to argue in point #5. And even if this could be accomplished successfully, it would have no clear implications about the legality of non-tribal harvest of listed and allegedly surplus (with respect to conservation) hatchery fish.


Of even greater relevance is the import of the proposed policy for hatchery programs that release fish into listed ESUs of which the hatchery fish are not members. If it is important for NOAA Fisheries to describe the lengths to which it will go to permit harvest of “surplus” ESA-listed hatchery fish, it is also incumbent on the agency to make clear the status of hatchery fish that are not members of a listed ESU with regard to take prohibitions under Sections 9 and 4(d). Clearly, the majority of releases of such hatchery fish are likely to result in the take of listed fish, particularly where hatchery fish are known or are likely to stray and interbreed with listed naturally spawning members of a listed ESU. It is curious, to say the least, that NOAA Fisheries is at pains to assert the permissibility of harvest of listed hatchery fish under the proposed policy, but is completely silent on the implications of the proposed policy with regard to take caused by hatchery programs.


For all of the reasons provided in these comments we find the proposed policy fundamentally inadequate and recommend unequivocally that it be withdrawn.





Chilcote, M. 2003. Relationship between natural productivity and the frequency of wild fish in mixed spawning populations of wild and hatchery steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss). Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 60: 1057-1067.


Ford, M. 2002. Selection in captivity during supportive breeding may reduce fitness in the wild. Conservation Biology 16(3): 815-825.


Goodman, D., in press. Selection equilibrium for hatchery and wild spawning fitness in integrated breeding programs. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences.


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