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Capitol Comment 246 – “Saving” Salmon in the Pacific Northwest: The Endangered Species Act Hits Home

Salmon have long been a symbol of the Pacific Northwest, and an important part of the region’s culture and industry. However, in recent years, salmon have become a heavily regulated symbol as federal, state, and local governments have struggled to address a decline in the population of these fish.

On March 16, 1999, the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) opened a new chapter in salmon regulation by placing nine additional subspecies of salmon and steelhead (actually a type of trout) on the Endangered Species List. For the first time, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) will affect major urban areas. Since the ESA does not take economic impacts into account, it is likely that caps on water use, limits on agricultural irrigation, new regulation of construction and transportation improvements, higher costs for new homes, restrictions on the use of lawn fertilizers, and higher water and energy bills will soon become the norm in the Pacific Northwest. As the Seattle Post-Intelligencer noted “[T]he arm of federal law now reaches into every home, business, farm and forest …”1 This development was hailed by many special interest groups, whose true agendas go far beyond simply protecting fish. However, by applying some common-sense and sound science, it is possible to restore salmon without crippling growth and prosperity in the region.

Does “Endangered” Really Mean “In Danger?” The March 16 listings by NMFS added eight subspecies of fish to the “threatened” category and one to the “endangered” category. This is in addition to 15 other Pacific Northwest salmon subspecies already on the Endangered Species List. With so many fish listed it may appear that salmon are on the verge of disappearing altogether. However, it must be remembered that ESA listings apply only to wild salmon. Hatchery-born fish, of which more than 200 million were released in 1995 alone, are ignored when counting numbers of a particular subspecies.2 Moreover, the salmon that have been listed are not actually distinct species. When the NMFS says it is listing nine new types of salmon, it really means it is listing nine of what it calls “evolutionarily significant units” (ESU) of salmon. An ESU is defined as “a population that is substantially reproductively isolated from the rest of its species, and represents an important component in the evolutionary legacy of the biological species.”3 This is similar to considering a human being living in Oregon a distinct species from a person living in Florida. Thus, not only is NMFS not counting all the salmon in the region, it is making arbitrary decisions about what is considered a “species” for placement on the Endangered Species List.

Saving Salmon without Hurting People. While it is unlikely that the decision to list the new ESUs will be reconsidered, the burdens on citizens in the Pacific Northwest can be lightened if NMFS applies some common sense to its salmon recovery efforts. First and foremost, NMFS must recognize that natural conditions alone will be the decisive factor in salmon recovery. There is substantial scientific evidence that a natural 20-30 year fluctuation in ocean temperatures will bring about a resurgence of salmon. Beginning in the 1970s this fluctuation warmed the ocean off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, leaving the water barren of the food salmon need to survive (primarily zooplankton). Recently, however, temperatures have begun to cool again. Salmon runs have already improved. During the first six months of 1999, 10,597 spring and summer chinook jacks were counted at Bonneville dam, up from 1,674 for the same period in 1998 and more than three times the average for the 10-year period of 1989-1998.4 Similar returns are being projected for many other runs of chinook, coho and steelhead.

Second, NMFS must accept the fact that hatchery fish have a critical role to play in any salmon recovery program. A recently appointed scientific panel concluded that utilizing hatcheries will cost less than other components of a recovery plan, and deliver much greater results in a much shorter period of time. For example, through the use of innovative hatchery science, the population of White River spring chinook rose from 66 fish in 1977 to roughly 473 by 1992 — an increase of more than 600 percent.5

Finally, NMFS must clearly articulate recovery goals. For example, the average run size of Puget Sound chinook is between 160,000 and 426,000.6 But, NMFS has given no indication how high this number must rise before this ESU can be delisted. Under such circumstances, it is impossible for states and localities to determine exactly what steps must be taken to pursue the most efficient path to salmon recovery.

A Regional Wrecking Ball. Regrettably, the initial fallout from the NMFS’ listing decision bodes ill for the future. For example, two elderly women in Lynwood, Washington, have been prohibited from selling an 18 acre plot of land because a tiny creek that runs through it drains into the Swamp Creek watershed, which is habitat for salmon. Farmers in the Methow Valley have had their irrigation ditches shut off for the first time in 100 years and may lose an entire season of crops. The city of Richland, Washington, cannot get approval to install 10 new traffic lights because of concerns over how transportation projects will affect salmon. Almost $9 million worth of highway and bridge construction work scheduled by Snohomish County this summer is likely to be delayed at least a year. Franklin County has seen a $2.4 million road improvement blocked — even though the road is 10 miles away from the Columbia River and the project has already passed an environmental review by the Federal Highway Administration. The city of Seattle has banned all logging along the Cedar River, costing it $300 million in revenues, and has agreed to cap its water usage from the river at 25 percent for the next 50 years. As drastic as all this sounds, it may only be the beginning.

Is the Worst Yet to Come? NMFS may have more in store for the Pacific Northwest. Four additional salmon ESUs may soon be listed, and NMFS is considering adding seven other types of fish living in Puget Sound to the Endangered Species List.7 Such a decision, combined with wrongheaded approaches to salmon recovery, would make prosperity and economic growth the Pacific Northwest’s newest endangered species.

1Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 3/17/99.

2″WDFW Hatcheries Program Statistics,” Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, 5/27/99.

3″Pacific Salmon and Artificial Propagation Under the Endangered Species Act,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 10/92.

4The Associated Press, 6/26/99.

5″Chinook Status Review,” National Marine Fisheries Service.

6″West Coast Chinook Salmon Fact Sheet,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, March 1999.

7National Marine Fisheries Service Northwest Region Press Release, 6/21/99.