Scientific Advice on Endangered Salmon Deleted

Published Jan 16, 2001

NOTE: The following is one of a series of case studies produced by the Union of Concerned Scientists' Scientific Integrity Program between 2004 and 2010 to document the abuses highlighted in our 2004 report, Scientific Integrity in Policy Making.

Six leading ecologists who were appointed to a scientific advisory panel by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) claim that they were asked to remove science-based recommendations from an official report.1 Scientists contend that the Bush administration’s new policy on endangered fish stocks put forth by the NMFS distorts the scientific evidence regarding the role of hatchery fish in maintaining viable populations of salmon in the Northwest. The new policy refers to old or discredited information that contradicts current scientific information provided by the scientific advisory panel.

According to the advisory panel’s lead scientist, Robert Paine, a world-renowned ecologist at the University of Washington,2 the panel’s science-based recommendations were suppressed by the NMFS. As Paine explains, "The members of the panel were told to either strip out our recommendations or see our report end up in a drawer."3

The controversy began in 2001 with a federal district court ruling about whether coastal Coho salmon in Oregon should be listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).4 Prior to this ruling, the NMFS had determined protection policies based on the numbers of wild fish in salmon and steelhead trout populations, without counting hatchery-bred fish.5 The NMFS made this distinction even though they had included hatchery fish with wild fish in their designation of distinct salmon populations (described as evolutionarily significant units, or ESUs).

However, the court ruled that, under the Endangered Species Act, an ESU is a single unit that cannot be divided. As such, the court held that once NMFS made a decision to count wild and hatchery fish within a single ESU, it must count all fish within an ESU when determining protection policies. The court did not rule that hatchery fish should be included within an ESU with wild fish.

The Salmon Recovery Science Review Panel, with membership approved by the National Research Council, decided to study the situation. The panel found that there was a strong scientific basis for distinguishing between wild salmon and hatchery-raised fish of similar genetic stock. Providing extensive scientific documentation, the panel recommended that ESUs be specifically defined to include only wild, naturally spawning fish. This central recommendation was deleted from the final report by the NMFS on the grounds that it was policy, not science.

Panel member Ransom Myers, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, explains that the panel reviewed what he calls "a massive amount of research that shows that domestication occurs rapidly in hatchery fish. Within a few generations, these fish quickly evolve into something different, and lose their ability to survive in the wild."6 The protected status of some wild salmon and steelhead trout populations has been challenged by developers, farmers, ranchers, timber interests, and private property advocates who want to end government restrictions to protect wild fish habitat.

According to the NMFS, the review panel's purpose is "to guide the scientific and technical aspects of recovery planning for listed salmon and steelhead species throughout the West Coast." In particular, the panel was instructed to "ensure that well accepted and consistent ecological and evolutionary principles form the basis for all [salmon and steelhead trout] recovery efforts."7

The development of a new Bush administration policy on hatchery fish was overseen by Mark Rutzick, who early in 2003 was appointed by President Bush as special adviser to the NOAA General Counsel. Previously, Rutzick served as a lawyer for the timber industry and was a strong opponent of fish and wildlife protections that logging companies viewed as overly restrictive. Rutzick first proposed the strategy of including hatchery fish in population counts for endangered salmon while he worked on behalf of timber interests.8

This apparent conflict of interest was brought to light with a great deal of media attention in April and May 2004.9 At that time, a copy of the draft policy leaked to The Washington Post suggested that all 26 listed populations of Northwest salmon and steelhead trout would be susceptible to delisting under the ESA once hatchery fish were included in their population assessments.10 The negative media coverage and public outcry subsequently led NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher to send a letter to senators and representatives from the northwest region, assuring them that the new hatchery fish policy would not lead to delisting and would maintain protections for at least 25 of the 26 listed salmon and steelhead trout populations.11

On May 28, 2004, the Bush administration's proposed new hatchery policy for the NMFS was published in the Federal Register along with a proposal for redefining and relisting 27 ESUs12 of salmon and steelhead trout in the Northwest.13 The new policy continues to include many hatchery and wild fish within the same ESUs,14 thus inflating the population counts of several endangered or threatened naturally spawning fish. While the policy acknowledges that some hatchery fish should be distinguished from wild populations, the new policy fails to provide measurable scientific criteria for distinguishing which hatchery fish may contribute to wild fish survival.15 According to Jim Lichatowich, salmon expert and former chief of fisheries research for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the policy is "not a new approach. It is a return to the past when hatcheries were exchanged for habitat and hatchery salmon were considered the same as wild. The vague criteria for separating hatchery and wild salmon will either cause mass confusion or send salmon recovery back to the failed practices of 100 years ago."16

While there appears to be scientific documentation in the new policy and there are a number of supporting documents included with the proposals, much of the science is out of date and disregards the extensive, up-to-date scientific record compiled by the Salmon Recovery Science Review Panel’s report, which is not included among the background reports featured in the policy.17 Thus, while the new policy and ESU proposals do not call for delistings, they provide little protection against legal challenges to delist populations that are currently threatened or endangered.

In response to the suppression of the advisory panel’s recommendations, the scientists published their findings independently in the journal Science.18 Describing the six scientists as "top-notch," Donald Kennedy, editor of Science, noted publicly that the article easily withstood review by scientific peers before publication. "Differences on scientific issues should be argued on the merits," Kennedy noted about this incident, "and censorship isn’t the way to conduct an honest debate."19

1. See Weiss, K. “Action to Protect Salmon Urged: Scientists say their advice was dropped from a report to the U.S. fisheries service,” Los Angeles Times. March 26. 2004.
2. The panel also included Ransom Myers of Dalhousie University; Russell Lande of the University of California at San Diego; William Murdock of the University of California at Santa Barbara; Frances James of Florida State University; and Simon Levin of Princeton University. View profiles of panel members.
3. Author interview with Robert Paine, April 2004.
4. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Alsea Valley Decision. Fact sheet.
5. Myers, R.A. et al. 2004. “Hatcheries and endangered salmon,” Science 303:1980. March 26.
6. Author interview with Ransom Myers, April 2004.
7. See National Marine Fisheries Service. 2003. “Salmon Recovery Science Review Panel.”
8. Egan, T. 2004. “Shift on Salmon Reignites Fight on Species Law,” The New York Times, p. A1. May 9.
9. See for example, Harden, B. “Hatchery Salmon to Count as Wildlife,” The Washington Post, p. A1. April 29. See also Egan, T. 2004 (cited above).
10. Official statements from NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) claimed that the new policy is required by the 2001 Coho salmon court decision. Although the NOAA interpretation of this court decision leads to an across-the-board policy that hatchery fish be considered indistinguishable from wild fish in defining evolutionarily significant units (ESUs), other viable interpretations could lead to a policy of excluding all hatchery fish from ESU designation (as recommended by the scientific panel) or that hatcheries be closed or seriously modified to prevent deleterious effects on the protected ESUs (e.g., see Lichatowich, J. 1999. Salmon Without Rivers. Island Press).
11. Rojas-Burke, J. 2004. “U.S. backs protecting wild runs of salmon,” Portland Oregonian. May 15.
12. The original 26 retained their listing and one new ESU was added.
13. NOAA NMFS, Northwest Region. 2004.Federal Register Notice Language. May 28; and NOAA Fisheries’ Response to the Alsea Valley Alliance v. Evans U.S. District Court Ruling. May 28.
14. Ibid.
15. Ibid. See also Myers, R.A. et al. 2004. “Hatcheries and endangered salmon,” Science 303:1980. March 26. The authors state that some conservation hatcheries may contribute to salmon recovery, but their effectiveness has never been shown. However, much evidence exists that hatcheries cannot maintain wild salmon populations indefinitely and that hatchery fish compete with naturally spawning fish.
16. Author interview with James Lichatowich, June 2004.
17. NOAA NMFS, Northwest Region. 2004. Federal Register Notice Language. May 28.
18. Myers, R.A. et al. 2004. “Hatcheries and endangered salmon,” Science 303:1980. March 26.
19. As quoted in Weiss, 2004. "Action to Protect Salmon Urged," Los Angeles Times.