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At a meeting in Sacramento this fall, Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, jokingly renamed NOAA Fisheries as “No Fisheries” to describe the damage done to this federal agency by the Bush administration.
NOAA Fisheries, a federal agency supposedly “dedicated to providing and preserving the nation’s living marine resources and their habitat,” definitely lived up to its new nickname on December 1 when it released a proposal that would slash habitat protection for endangered and threatened salmon stocks in California and the Northwest.
The proposals could reduce up to 90 percent of “critical habitat” set aside for the fish in California and as much as 80 percent of the habitat in the Pacific Northwest, according to Jim Lecky, the assistant regional manager for the Southwest Region of the agency.
“This proposal seeks to protect critical salmon habitats and meet the economic needs of the citizens of the Pacifica Northwest and California,” said Bill Hogarth, NOAA Fisheries administrator, in spite of the fact that the proposal actually reduces, rather than maintaining or expanding “critical habitat.”
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) requires the federal government to designate “critical habitat” for any species listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. NOAA defines “critical habitat” as “specific areas on which are found physical or biological features essential to the conservation of the species, and which may require special management considerations of protection.”
Fishery and environmental groups fear that increasing reliance on the perceived “economic needs” of landowners in making fish habitat decisions will result in increased siltation of spawning beds through logging, the de-watering of streams through agricultural diversions and the encroachment of urban development on pristine watershed. This reduction of “critical habitat” will put already precarious salmon and steelhead runs at the edge of extinction.
The agency contends that federal restoration efforts have already resulted in substantial improvements in salmon runs and the costs of restoration to landowners must be considered in setting aside habitat for salmon.
“This proposal emphasized salmon restoration as a top priority and recognized the many voluntary conservation efforts and collaborative agreements that are already underway to achieve that goal,” said Bob Long. NOAA Fisheries, northwest regional administrator. “The designations are designed to identify the most beneficial biological habitat for salmon, while also defining the scope of the costs associated with designating certain areas.”
Since 2000, three of four listed Northern and Central California salmon runs and 13 of 16 listed Pacific Northwest salmon populations have experienced “significant improved numbers. Nearly all salmon populations have increased greatly and current levels are now well above ten-year averages,” the agency claimed.
However, Glen Spain, Northwest Regional Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations said the proposal would only protect stretches of streams already occupied by fish, totally disregarding the thousands and thousands of miles of streams where salmon and steelhead have been exterminated because of dams, water diversions and habitat degradation.
“NOAA is eliminating plans to recolonize stretches of river where the fish have been eliminated because of habitat destruction,” said Spain. “They are ignoring the need to protect habitat that was historically occupied by the fish and where the fish could be living again if they were restored.”
Historical habitat where salmon have been extirpated is most dramatically demonstrated in California in the case of the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam, where a huge spring run of salmon was completely exterminated to provide water for corporate agribusiness.
Also, the Bush administration’s “economic analysis” ignores all of the benefits to the sportfishing and commercial fishing industries, only considering the benefits to agribusiness, the timber industry and land developers. “They use over-inflated costs of protection in their analysis, but won,t consider the economic benefits of restoration,” said Spain. “This administration has a long history of ignoring the benefits and emphasizing the costs of restoration through a biased economic analysis.”
He cited the case of the bull trout where administration political appointees ordered the scientists studying critical habitat to eliminate all discussion of the benefits of restoration.
The current proposal is the culmination of a long history of legal battles between fish advocates, the “wise use” movement and the federal government. In April 2002, NOAA Fisheries withdrew the 2000 critical habitat designations, in response to a legal challenge by the National Association of Homebuilders, after a federal court ruled that the agency did not adequately consider the economic impacts of the critical habitat designations.
The PCFFA and other plaintiffs, in turn, filed another lawsuit, arguing that the agency had failed to designate in a timely manner critical habitat for the 19 Evolutionarily Significant Units (ESUs) for which critical habitat had been vacated. The parties entered a settlement where NOAA Fisheries ultimately agreed to file the critical habitat designations for the 19 ESU’s covered by the vacated rule, plus Northern California steelhead, by November 30.
Spain noted that the new NOAA proposal is contrary to the stated fishery restoration policies of the four Pacific states–to recover salmon and steelhead populations as fast as possible to harvestable levels.
“They are trying to do as little as possible as long as possible until the problem goes away,” said Spain. “Yes, the problem will go away–when the fish become extinct!”
Public hearings on the proposals will be held in January 2005 in various locations in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California to receive comments and feedback on the proposal. I encourage everybody concerned about salmon and steelhead recovery to attend these hearings and send their comments.
Details of the public hearings will soon be posted on the NOAA Fisheries website: www.nwr.noaal.gove/. Following the public comment period and hearings, the final rules are slated to be completed by June 2005.
On the same day that the administration reduced critical habitat for salmon, NOAA Fisheries ruled out the possibility of removing dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers to protect 11 endangered runs of salmon and steelhead.
Other recent decisions that favored landowners and water barons over fish include the agency’s “no jeopardy” biological opinion regarding endangered Central Valley fish, designed to pave the way for more Delta exports, and the agency’s inclusion of both hatchery and wild salmon under ESA-protected populations of salmon.
There is no doubt that NOAA Fisheries has become the “No Fisheries,” agency where the only “science” practiced is political!
DAN BACHER can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org