For years, scientists have argued over the differences between hatchery and wild salmon (HCN, 10/9/00: Killing salmon to save the species). When it listed the coho salmon as endangered, the National Marine Fisheries Service included only wild fish, drawing a line between hatchery and wild populations.
In fall 1999, the Pacific Legal Foundation, a private-property advocacy group, took the issue to court, arguing the line should be erased.
In early September, federal district Judge Michael Hogan agreed, throwing out the coho's status as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Because the ruling came from a district court, it only sets a precedent for fish in Oregon. But, if appealed and upheld, the ruling could impact the status of endangered salmon and steelhead throughout the country.
"This is a great decision, with tremendous implications," says Russ Brooks of the Pacific Legal Foundation. "It's standard policy for the agencies to exclude hatchery fish, so now all those listings are called into question."
Salmon advocates are dismayed by the ruling. They argue that mixing captive-bred fish with wild populations weakens the native stocks, increasing their vulnerability to disease and predators. Earthjustice has promised to try to get the coho relisted during any appeals process.
In a letter to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Don Evans, who oversees the Fisheries Service, Oregon governor John Kitzhaber, D, requested an appeal, but the agency has not yet announced a decision.