Bush's own panel of scientific advisers unanimously rejected the change, saying that in-bred hatchery fish – which make up 80 percent of Pacific salmon populations – cannot replenish losses in populations of the 26 species of wild salmon now officially threatened with extinction.
Naturally spawned fish are heartier, stronger, and provide the vigorous genetic variations needed to maintain the salmon's survival in the wild. Filling streams with less-efficient, disease-prone hatchery breeds will give a false picture of species numbers and species survivability, the scientists say. But that seems to be the intention.
Although Bush's bureaucrats say there will be no change in the salmon's status 'for now', the ruling gives them the power – when the media heat is off – to gut environmental restrictions that have protected salmon habitats throughout the West from logging and commercial exploitation by agribusiness and property developers.
These corporate interests have fought long and hard (using lobbying and lawsuits) to eliminate salmon protections, which they say have cost them millions of dollars in potential profits. They have crossed Bush’s palm with copious amounts of campaign silver to make their dreams come true, and he has delivered. He appointed the logging industry’s top lobbyist, Mark Rutzick, to a key post in the US National Maritime Fisheries Service, which engineered the ESA rule change. So, it should be no surprise that the new edict closely mirrors logging industry proposals for which Rutzick had pushed for years.
The ruling could have devastating environmental consequences. Lifting salmon protections will increase the dumping of industrial and agricultural waste in rivers and streams. Marine and animal life dependent on the salmon, either directly or further up the food chain, will diminish. Another pocket of planet-sustaining biodiversity will wither into sterility.
As one sceptical biologist noted, the pretzel logic of the ruling is ‘like counting zoo animals’ when considering the overall health of a species. This new legal precedent could mean open season on protected species and their habitats throughout the US.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist July 2004