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It's about habitat, not genetics

Listing fish species means restoring streams and rivers ' the real goal

The debate over wild vs. hatchery salmon rages on, and it's unlikely to be finally resolved anytime soon. We think arguing over fish genetics misses the point.

It's about habitat, not about which fish are counted when determining the strength of a run.

Property-rights groups and others who oppose government regulations designed to protect fish runs argue that there is no genetic difference between a wild salmon and one reared in a hatchery. Therefore, the argument goes, if hatchery fish are included in counts of a given species, then some species should be removed from federal threatened or endangered lists.

This position was given a boost in 2001 when U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan in Eugene ruled that hatchery fish are genetically the same as wild fish.

Fish biologists and environmentalists say the flaw in that reasoning is that, while hatchery and wild fish may be the same species, the wild fish have a broader gene pool. That genetic diversity gives them characteristics that make them better able to resist disease, changes in water temperature and other rigors of life in the wild.

At the root of this debate is not fish, but the rivers and streams they swim in. If a run is listed under the Endangered Species Act, that triggers restrictions on fishing, land development in watersheds and other activities that harm fish. It also allows public money to be spent to restore streambanks, build fish ladders and conduct other projects to improve habitat and thereby strengthen fish runs.

— The real question that Oregonians need to answer is how they want their rivers and streams to be treated.

Even if we count hatchery fish together with wild fish, what is considered a healthy salmon run today is a pale shadow of the monster fish runs documented before Europeans settled the Northwest. Those runs have declined steadily ever since with the advent of dams, highways, logging and pollution from agriculture and human settlements.

It's politically difficult to win funding for restoring rivers and streams without some direct benefit other than a clean, cool river. That's where species protection laws come in. Fish and other wildlife affected by degraded habitat are called indicator species ' their health reflects the health of the environment they live in.

In the case of salmon, raising fish in hatcheries may mask the effect of declining habitat downstream and keep fish run numbers up ' for a while. Eventually even hatcheries may not be able to counteract the damage. By then it may be too late.

We don't think most Oregonians want to allow fish habitat to continue to be degraded. We think they want to protect fish runs, and the rivers in which they run.