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Independent Panel Report


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Review of An Independent Panel Report
on Classifying Hatchery Fish Under the ESA

Ernest L. Brannon, University of Idaho

Considering Life History, Behavioral, and Ecological Complexity in Defining Conservation Units for Pacific Salmon

An independent panel report, requested by NOAA Fisheries, June 13, 2005

Jody Hey (Chair); Ernest L. Brannon; Donald E. Campton; Roger W. Doyle; Ian A. Fleming; Michael T. Kinnison; Russell Lande; Jeffrey Olsen; David P. Philipp; Joseph Travis; Chris C. Wood; Holly Doremus (Facilitator)

This is the sixth Article on the Independent Panel Report to NOAA Fisheries on when is it biologically appropriate to include hatchery produced fish or resident trout in Evolutionarily Significant Units of anadromous Pacific salmon? Four questions were asked of the panel. The fourth and final question was on the role of ecology and genetics in defining ESUs.

4. The Role of ecology versus genetics in defining conservation units

The final question addressed by the panel was: What role should ecological, behavioral, and life history differences between resident/anadromous and hatchery/natural fish play in identification of conservation units? Does the answer depend on the degree to which variation in these factors has a genetic basis?

This question was largely answered in the course of addressing the other questions. It is important to consider that the different environments of hatchery versus wild fish, and resident versus anadromous fish, do lead to different selection pressures, as well as to ecological, behavioral and life history differences. In addition this answer does not depend on there being genetic differences between populations. The degree of genetic relatedness is a major factor for considering which hatchery, or resident, populations may play a constructive role in the conservation of a wild population. However, important biological differences occur between hatchery and wild fish, and between anadromous and resident fish, even though they may be very recently descended from the same individuals.

Commentary by E. Brannon

Here we have the essence of the problem in how the panel perceives the issues about hatchery and resident fish. The statement “important biological differences occur between hatchery and wild fish, and between anadromous and resident fish, even though they may be very recently descended from the same individuals,” is saying that genetics is not the ultimate deciding factors when no genetic differences are detected between hatchery and wild fish or between anadromous and resident fish. With tongue-in-cheek, genetics is great justification to separate these fish as long as there are differences, but if the fish in question represent the same genotype, then other criteria have to be found to keep them separate, and ecological criteria provided the opportunity. Since by definition hatchery and wild fish, or anadromous and resident life forms are ecologically different, there can always be “scientific” justification to keep them separate whenever it is decided to do so..

However, steelhead and rainbow that naturally interbreed created a problem for such a strategy. In addition to the inability to distinguish progeny of rainbow and steelhead from one another, they both exchange life history forms, and thus there was no other choice for the panel but to join them in a single conservation unit or ESU. Curiously the same was not true when considering hatchery and wild fish from the same scientific standpoint. Although hatchery fish originating from wild fish are virtually (1) the same genetically, (2) ecologically more similar than the anadromous/resident comparison, (3) more similar in their life histories, (4) indistinguishable from one another in the natural environment (5) exchange life history forms, and (6) wild fish include progeny of naturally spawned hatchery fish, the panel concluded they should not be joined in the same unit!! What was the rationale? Simply put, in the eyes of most panel members, artificial propagation of any kind should disqualify these fish from being placed with wild components in an ESU. Consequently, we are left with a decision that subjective judgment will continue to be the criteria determining what should be included in a given conservation unit.

Why am I rather callous about the situation? In my opinion, the process was not a legitimate exercise of scientific inquiry, because it didn’t involve a careful and detailed discussion of the scientific literature and research experience associated with hatchery production to arrive at their conclusions. The panel members were experts in their fields, but they had little or no background in artificial propagation, and some have little association with fisheries. Consequently, discussion about the merits and problems related to hatchery fish should have been a significant part of the meeting, but it wasn’t. It was apparent that panel members came to the meeting with their minds already made up. The references were compiled after the meeting, and as shown previously, even then the cited literature didn’t support the claims being made about hatchery fish.

It is important to understand that my disagreement isn’t because I champion hatchery fish. I would much prefer native fish naturally propagating and maintaining themselves without any assistance, un-dammed streams, free flowing rivers, and enough production to maintain all of the commercial, Indian, and sport fishing interests. Moreover, hatcheries are not the panacea for overcoming all of the problems that recovery faces. Fisheries management has allowed major abuses of native salmon and steelhead populations through their management of hatchery programs. Poor performance is not the fault of the fish when they are put in the wrong place, at the wrong time, in the wrong numbers, and exposed to the wrong harvest strategy. In development of the west, salmon and steelhead were severely over-fished, their migration destinations blocked, their habitat altered, and their production capacity reduced. This situation required measures to sustain their production, provide continuing harvests, and still allow the use of water resources for economic development to serve the west. To address the situation, hatcheries were the choice of those decision makers at the time, and hatcheries continue to serve the same purpose today. However, we need to do a better job in providing for the needs of native salmon and steelhead, and we need to do a better job at designing artificial propagation to be effective without displacing the native fish. We also have to realize the great benefit other water uses have had on the economy of the west.

The problem with how to handle hatchery and resident fish when salmon and steelhead are being considered for listing under the ESA, unfortunately, is more basic than what has been covered in the expert panel report and my commentaries. In my analysis the problem comes from the policies that NMFS created to administer the ESA, and the influence of those policies on decision-making. They can be identified as three related major issues:

1. Creation of a new conservation unit called an Evolutionarily Significant Unit (ESU) that doesn’t conform to those specified under the ESA defined as species, subspecies, and an interbreeding distinct population segment (DPS).

2. NMFS policy as an agenda different from what was specified under the ESA.

3. NMFS policy that ecosystems upon which species at risk depend should be free of human influence and hatchery fish.

1. The first point is that an ESU, as defined in the NMFS policy (56 FR 58612), is not legitimate under the ESA because it is not a species, subspecies or a distinct interbreeding population segment. The NMFS policy says an ESU can include many non-interbreeding populations as long as they are believed to possess some genetic similarity. That results in a serious discrepancy between NMFS policy and the wording of the ESA, which states a DPS is “a distinct population segment which interbreeds when mature [ESA Sec 3(16)],” and in the case of salmon it means a self-recruiting unit that spawns together. NMFS refers to the DPS as if it were synonymous with the definition of an ESU and therefore they give themselves broad authority to make large conservation units that can include many populations that are isolated spatially and temporally from one another, and in which members of the group do not interbreed. If several populations are similar enough to be combined within a single ESU, then any one is not distinct from the others, and thus by definition, none could qualify as a distinct population segment. An ESU disregards the critical interbreeding criterion of a DPS that Congress established in the ESA. NMFS was able to get around the instructions of Congress to use the Act sparingly by putting many populations within a single ESU, and then imply that since it is a single unit the ESA is being administered sparingly. In reality, NMFS has included hundreds of populations of salmon and steelhead in their listing process, and that by no means represents a sparing application of the Act.

The DPS classification is an interbreeding population consistent with the common meaning of what most biologists consider a population to represent. When working below the species and subspecies levels, Congress limited ESA administrators to work only with individual interbreeding units, and did not include units made up of multiple non-interbreeding populations. Limiting listing to an interbreeding unit makes it possible to (1) confine recovery plans to a limited geographic area, (2) it makes recovery more manageable and measurable, (3) it limits critical habitat to the actual area of residence used by the fish, (4) it allows targeted use of hatchery fish to supplement the local population, (5) it has limited impact on other water use, and (6) it prevents runaway excesses of government interference with local fisheries management.

Under their present interpretation of the ESA, NMFS is managing nearly all aspects of the Pacific Coast salmon and steelhead fisheries. Moreover, the management unit of the ESA with regards to protection and recovery has to be the same as the listed unit, and ESUs cannot be managed as discrete units. Developing a hatchery policy to apply to ESUs confounds the ESA process, and results in the dilemma that resulted in the question asked by Drs. Varanasi and Fox, whether a hatchery population could be excluded on biological grounds from a conservation unit that includes multiple wild populations, when the hatchery population is more closely related to one of those populations than any of the wild populations are to each other(?), covered in Article 3 last month. This is a pertinent question only because an ESU of multiple populations was created by NMFS policy. Had they worked within with the definition of a DPS (interbreeding), there wouldn’t be a problem because the hatchery population would be the same as the listed component. The fact that Drs. Varanasi and Fox asked that question exposes the ESU for its erroneous conception. If hatchery fish from one population can’t supplement the other populations of an ESU, then the other populations should not have been included in the conservation unit.

2. The NMFS administrative agenda is to conserve the genetic diversity of species, as explained by Waples (1991). However, the word “diversity” doesn’t even appear in the ESA, and there is no implication that conserving genetic diversity was intended. If conserving genetic diversity were the objective of Congress in establishing the ESA, they would have stated such, but they didn’t. Actions taken to conserve endangered species are very different than the actions taken to conserve genetic diversity. The latter would require administering the Act at the population level to preserve their genetic attributes, and wouldn’t you know it, that is exactly what NMFS is doing. If Congress intended such action, the members would never have admonished the agencies to use the ability to list sparingly. The problem is that most people haven’t paid much attention to the debate, but the cost of preserving genetic diversity, and thus concentrating on every salmon and steelhead population at risk, has cost billions more than what would have been required to protect those species that were actually endangered, and it has involved NMFS in areas of our lives that they have no business to be.

3. The third point is that NMFS appears to consider that the stated purpose of the ESA [Sec 2(b)], “to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved” refers only to ecosystems free of human influence. NMFS also seems to ignore the continuing statement contained in ESA [Sec 2(b)], “to provide a program for the conservation of such endangered species and threatened species,” which includes the use of hatchery fish. Conservation includes propagation to assist in recovery of listed species. NMFS appears to ignore the facts that (1) presently functioning natural ecosystems on which wild fish depend include the human element, (2) that hatchery fish are presently well represented in wild populations, (3) that hatchery fish have a place and continuing role in ecosystem health, (4) hatchery fish represent the legacy of their native origins, and (5) maintaining hatchery contributions expands the evolutionary potential of the local wild population. .

The negative effects on wild populations alleged against artificial propagation do not include hatchery fish that originate from the local wild populations (Brannon et al. 2004a&b), and that is the only test of artificial propagation that counts. Supplementation with local hatchery fish can be very successful when the appropriate protocol is followed (Blouin 2003; Phillips et al. 2000). If problems are created with the use of hatchery fish, they can be addressed, but the very great evolutionary potential contained in hatchery populations should never be overlooked, because they are the legacy of the originating native fish.

Setting the Record Straight

In spite of the rhetoric we hear about these issues, this ongoing debate isn’t about preventing the extinction of salmon and steelhead. Salmon and steelhead are not threatened with extinction. Some populations have disappeared from river development and habitat loss, some of which was an intended reduction by federal action, but threats of extinction of any of the five Pacific salmon and the steelhead species is simply political propaganda meant to create the very kind of hysteria that we see generated within the sportsmen and environmental communities. If NMFS really believed the species were at risk, they would eliminate the harvest of those fish and disallow their sale, but they don’t and we see wild salmon in every market place across the country. Alaska is approaching their 5th largest all time harvest of wild salmon this year (2005). The resource agencies of the Pacific states are capable of addressing weak salmon and steelhead runs and rebuilding strength in those populations.

The debate isn’t about protecting the native populations of these species. Native fish still exist in the northern part of their range, and probably are still represented in some parts of their southern range, but artificial propagation and wide distribution of hatchery fish have been going on for over 100 years in the south, and the genetic structure of the receiving populations has no doubt been influenced. The negative effects of those practices was not permanent, and selection will continue to hone the fitness of those fish in the natural environment in synchrony with their habitat, just as it has for unknown millennia. These populations are not fixed entities in creation, but respond to the dynamics of their environments in response to the temporal and spatial changes they confront. Hatchery fish represent the legacy of their native origins, and that resource potential should not be underestimated.

The debate isn’t about the environment. There is no intent to substitute artificial propagation for natural production to promote a hidden agenda to reduce natural habitat for salmon and steelhead. Habitat can be conserved and even rebuilt to accommodate the needs of wild salmon and steelhead. That too is within the prerogative of the state, and the public has a voice in those alternatives.

The debate is really about an agency of the federal government that has independently interpreted the law and created their own authority to exercise control over the resources of the state, in violation of the intent of Congress. (1) It is about an agency creating a conservation unit that wasn’t authorized by Congress under the ESA, and (2) about subdividing a distinct population segment (DPS) into unauthorized smaller parts to treat independently as they choose. (3) It is about an agency deciding that the ESA should preserve genetic diversity rather than conserve species, and thus (4) an agency working exclusively at the population and subpopulation levels. (5) It is a debate about the violation of the intent of the law by a federal agency that results in huge increases in budget and control under the guise of serving the intent of Congress. (6) It is about the loss of public control over the private and public resources of their state, and (7) it is about a federal agency that has no accountability to any public for what they do or spend. If the citizens of this country want a law to give NOAA Fisheries such authority, then they should ask their congressmen to pass such a law, but to assume such liberty by adopting policy initiatives within the agency is simply abuse of power. The unfortunate outcome has been the public’s willingness to believe the propaganda of those that abuse the democratic process, and to allow our salmon resources to become fodder of the political wars. The ESA does not need revision. It needs to be administered as Congress intended under the guidelines and definitions it set forth. Congress needs to regain control.


Blouin, M. 2003. Relative reproductive success of hatchery and wild steelhead in the Hood River. BPA Proj. 1988-053-12.
Brannon, E., M. Powell, T. Quinn, and A. Talbot. 2004a. Population structure of Columbia River Basin chinook salmon and steelhead trout. Reviews in Fisheries Science. 11(1):1-120.
Brannon E., D. Amend, M. Cronin, J. Lannan, S. LaPatra, W. McNeil, R. Noble, C. Smith8, A. Talbot, G. Wedemeyer, and H. Westers. 2004b. The controversy about salmon hatcheries. Fisheries 29(9):12-31.
Phillips, J.L., J. Ory, and A.J. Talbot. 2000. Anadromous salmonid recovery in the Umatilla River Basin, Oregon: a case study. Pages 1287-1308 in Watershed management for endangered species. Journal of the American Water Resources Association 36(6):1287-1308.
Waples, R.S. 1991a. Definition of “species” under the Endangered Species Act: application to Pacific salmon. NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Technical Memorandum NMFS (National Marine Fisheries Service) F/NWC-194, Northwest Fisheries Science Center, Seattle.

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