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Flyfishing in Saltwaters, Nov/Dec 2005

 

Friday Night Dump

More Bad News for Salmon and Steelhead in the Pacific Northwest

By Capt. John McMurray

 

Salmon and steelhead rank among the most targeted fish on the West Coast by saltwater fly rodders. Unfortunately, it’s not really news that many salmon runs that once supported thriving recreational and commercial fisheries in the Pacific Northwest are either gone or in trouble. Scores of these runs have become extinct and the Endangered Species Act (ESA) lists 26 population segments as threatened or endangered. Degradation of habitat used for spawning, and migration is the chief cause.  NOAA Fisheries has proved either unwilling or incapable of taking any effective steps to ensure that the remaining runs don’t perish, and has abrogated its duty (required under the ESA) to aid in a threatened species’ recovery (see March/April 2005 Resource Column). The latest example of this dereliction of duty took place on August 12 this year. In a now common practice of announcing unpopular decisions late on a Friday to minimize press coverage, NOAA Fisheries released its final decision addressing critical habitat rule for 19 stocks of salmon in the Pacific Northwest. In language certain to please the timber and energy industries as well as developers, the rule removes critical habitat designation for thousands of miles of streams, reportedly reducing the amount of protected rivers in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California by 80 percent. In slashing the amount of protected habitat, the 23,500 miles of streams left covered under the final rule comprises merely one-fifth of the area previously considered off limits.

NOAA Fisheries then cut the protected waterways by an additional 12 percent -- about two-thirds of which represent areas where the service determined the economic impact on businesses was too great, regardless of the impact on the fish.  Native American reservations, military bases, private or industry owned land with voluntary habitat conservation plans were also striped of habitat designation.

 

Habitat for Recovery

The “final rule” keeps the critical habitat designation in place only in those areas where NOAA Fisheries could prove substantial salmon populations still existed. However, according to Robert McClure of the Seattle Times, NOAA Fisheries admitted its biologists didn’t have time to accurately map all streamside areas that might deserve protection because of legal deadlines. Habitats that salmon inhabited before dams were constructed or wild populations that were extirpated no longer receive protection.

Numerous court cases have determined that the ESA intended “critical habitat designation” to provide enough territory not only to ensure the continued survival of a species, but also to permit its recovery. Habitat necessary for such resurgence extends well beyond a species’ current (and often diminished) range. No scientific evidence disputes the fact that some currently unoccupied areas might prove essential for the recovery of salmon and steelhead. However, in justifying the final rule, NOAA Fisheries claimed the unoccupied lands were unnecessary for the salmon, adding that leaving such land open would impose unnecessary costs on big-timber, development and hydropower industries.

 

Economic Factors?

This rule appears to have been issued in response to a lawsuit brought by the National Association of Home Builders, which claims that NOAA Fisheries failed to include an economic impact analysis in its earlier decisions. Under the ESA, NOAA Fisheries must consider the economic effects of designating an area as critical habitat. This could exempt a location if the agency finds that the benefits of such a classification fail to outweigh its costs. However, such a determination rests squarely at the discretion of the agency.  Many question whether NOAA Fisheries is merely using the lawsuit as an excuse to open up the majority of previously protected rivers to development.

Salmon advocates argue that the proposal grossly overstates the costs of restoration and underestimates the benefits that fish restoration bestows on local economies -- a claim that NOAA Fisheries dismisses, asserting that no data exists to quantify the economic benefits of protecting salmon habitat. However, dozens of studies have firmly established that the recovery of salmon is good for the economy. These fish support substantial recreational and commercial fisheries that generate an enormous amount of money, which would increase with the population. It seems highly disingenuous for NOAA Fisheries to claim they can’t verify the benefits but they can provide a very detailed evaluation of the costs.

 

The Motivation

NOAA Fisheries’ decision to reduce protected areas relieves the federal agencies charged with issuing licenses for dams from the need to determine whether salmon recovery is possible without changes to such structures. It also permits habitat-degrading activities, such as filling wetlands, harvesting timber, developing real estate and constructing highways, to be approved in these areas with total disregard.

NOAA Fisheries is charged with “protecting and preserving our nation’s living marine resources and their habitat,” but one can’t read the final rule without believing that it exists to protect and preserve industry interests, whatever their impact on salmon. This is supported by a recent survey of NOAA Fisheries scientists, conducted by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), in which 53 percent of the respondents said that they knew of cases in which “commercial interests have inappropriately induced the reversal or withdrawal of NOAA Fisheries scientific conclusions or decisions through political intervention.” Only one-quarter of the respondents said that they “trust NOAA Fisheries decision makers to make decisions that will protect marine resources and ecosystems.”

It should not come as a surprise that NOAA Fisheries’ own National Marine Fisheries Service Northwest Regional Director was an official of the Bonneville Power Administration (the organization that operates hydroelectric dams). Nor should it surprise that the NOAA Fisheries attorney who allegedly took part in drafting much of the final rule is a former lobbyist for the timber industry.

Ironically enough, NOAA Fisheries touted the proposal as reaffirming its commitment to salmon and steelhead recovery.

For more info and to find out how you can express your concern, go to www.tu.org and follow the links to its press releases. Earthjustice, National Wildlife Federation, and Trout Unlimited recently released a white paper on salmon and steelhead critical habitat entitled, “A Place Called Home: Why Critical Habitat is Essential to the Recovery of Salmon and Steelhead.” You can also log on to www.wildsalmon.org.