His decision flatly rejects the idea that if enough salmon can be produced in hatcheries, there is little need to protect wild stocks. It also strikes down what environmentalists widely viewed as a Bush administration policy to appease building and agriculture interests.
The Endangered Species Act has a “central purpose of preserving and promoting self-sustaining natural populations,” the judge ruled.
“Species are to be protected in the context of their habitats, until they are self-sustaining without the interference of man,” Coughenour’s ruling says. “Artificial propagation is a temporary measure designed to bring a species to the point where the species no longer requires the protection” of the endangered-species law.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, relying on a contradictory ruling from 2001, had been calculating the salmon population by counting wild and introduced fish equally. Coughenour’s assessment of the role of hatchery-raised fish means that the assessment of a population’s stability must be based on wild salmon, and with the effects of hatchery fish considered only subsequently.
The 2001 ruling held that the NMFS was obliged to consider both natural and artificially maintained populations of fish in making endangered species determinations. An appeals court will almost certainly have to address the question and resolve the disagreement.
Coughenour’s ruling points out that hatchery fish behave differently and compete with wild fish. “It is clear,” he writes, “that hatchery fish have important differences from wild fish.” The details of hatchery management dictate some of those differences, and some groups which were not party to the suit have suggested that different hatchery procedures might produce fish which integrate better with their wild cousins, and would supplement, rather than supplant, wild populations.