TU comments: Proposed Changes to Listed Salmon and Steelhead Hatchery Programs

In Oregon by Nick Chambers


December 20, 2016troutLogo

Chris Yates

Assistant Regional Administrator

Protected Resources Division

NMFS, West Coast Regional Office

Attn: Claire McGrath

1201 NE Lloyd Blvd., Suite 1100

Portland, OR 97232

Re: Proposed Changes to Listed Salmon and Steelhead Hatchery Programs


Dear Mr. Yates:


Trout Unlimited (TU), the nation’s largest coldwater fisheries conservation organization dedicated to protecting and restoring our nation’s trout and salmon resources and the watersheds that sustain them, submits this letter as comment on the Proposed Changes to Listed Salmon and Steelhead Hatchery Programs (Proposed Listing Changes).   We appreciated the courtesy and time of the NOAA staff who met with us in November to discuss this matter and explain the underlying rationale.


Comment Summary


After reviewing the Proposed Listing Changes and supporting documentation,  the 2005 Hatchery Listing Policy (Hatchery Listing Policy), and 1991 Evolutionary Significant Unit Policy (ESU Policy) upon which the proposed changes are based, TU believes that the Proposed Listing Changes should not be adopted because the addition of many of the hatchery populations to Evolutionarily Significant Units (ESUs) or Distinct Population Segments (DPSs) listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) would run directly counter to the express purpose of the ESA:  to recover naturally reproducing populations of salmon and steelhead in the wild.  TU believes that the root problem is NOAA’s Hatchery Listing Policy, which is not consistent with the best available science or the ESA’s express purpose.  Consequently, the application of the 2005 Policy to the hatchery populations covered in the Proposed Listing Changes results in an inappropriate recommendation that those populations be included in listed ESUs and DPSs.


Accordingly, TU requests that NOAA: (1) not adopt the Proposed Listing Changes; and  (2) revise its Hatchery Listing Policy to make it consistent with the best available science and the purpose of the ESA.

Detailed Comments


  1. The Hatchery Listing Policy is flawed because the moderate genetic divergence standard it establishes for determining whether to include hatchery populations in listed ESUs and DPSs is not supported by the best available science and its application undermines the ESA’s intent and purpose. 


In 1991 NOAA adopted a policy for determining which salmon and steelhead populations should be included in an ESU or DPS.  The ESU Policy established two criteria for including a particular population in an ESU or DPS: (1) substantial reproductive isolation; and (2) representation of an important component in the evolutionary legacy of the species.   56 FR 58612, November 20, 1991.  In explaining why these criteria are used, NOAA stated: “A review of the legislative history indicates that a major motivating factor behind the ESA was the desire to preserve genetic variability, both between and within species.”  56 FR 58612.  The ESU Policy itself states that the second criterion (important component of evolutionary legacy) “would be met if the population contributed substantially to the ecological/genetic diversity of the species as a whole.”  In other words, if the population becomes extinct, would this event represent “a significant loss to the ecological/genetic diversity of the species.”  56 FR 58618.  In the technical memorandum underpinning the ESU Policy, this criterion was further explicated as requiring that populations “represent units of real evolutionary significance to the species.”  Robin Waples, Definition of a “Species” under the Endangered Species Act: Application to Pacific Salmon (NMFS Technical Memorandum 1991) at vii.


In Alsea Valley Alliance v. Evans, 161 F.Supp. 2d 1154 (D. Or. 2001), the federal district court ruled that once NOAA determined that hatchery populations were part of an ESU or DPS listed under the ESA, it had to list the hatchery populations as well as the natural-origin populations.  Prior to that time NOAA only listed natural-origin populations except in narrowly defined circumstances where hatchery populations were found to be essential for the ESU’s recovery.


In response to Alsea, NOAA developed “interpretive guidance” in the form of a policy (Hatchery Listing Policy) that was to guide NOAA’s determinations about when to include hatchery populations in ESUs and DPSs.  70 FR 37204, June 28, 2005.  That policy is still in effect today.


The Hatchery Listing Policy is built on the foundation of the ESU Policy, which contains the two criteria discussed above for determining whether populations are part of an ESU or DPS.  In its Hatchery Listing Policy, NOAA adopted a new standard to apply when determining whether hatchery populations should be included in an ESU or DPS consistent with the ESU Policy criteria.  That standard is: “Hatchery stocks with a level of genetic divergence relative to the local natural populations that is no more than what occurs within the ESU” are considered to be part of the ESU and are considered listed if the ESU is listed.  70 FR 37215.  In the Hatchery Listing Policy’s explanatory statement, NOAA describes its chosen standard as the “moderate divergence” standard. 70 FR 37209.


It is the moderate divergence standard that is the root problem with both the Hatchery Listing Policy and the Proposed Listing Changes that are currently open for public comment.  The moderate divergence standard is not consistent with the best available science and the clear purpose of the ESA for the reasons set forth below.



    1. The moderate genetic divergence standard adopted in the 2005 Hatchery Listing Policy does not satisfy the requirement that only populations that represent an “important component in the evolutionary legacy” of a species should be included in an ESU or DPS.


A hatchery population’s level of divergence from natural-origin populations it interacts with, while a relevant factor, is not – in and of itself – adequate for determining whether the hatchery population is an important component in the ESU’s evolutionary legacy.  As discussed above, the purpose of the ESA is to protect and recover naturally self-sustaining populations in the wild, and preserving genetic fitness is an important ESA goal. The policies NOAA adopts to implement the ESA must be consistent with – not thwart – that purpose.


The moderate divergence standard does not differentiate populations that are truly evolutionarily important from those that are merely genetically similar.  The moderate divergence standard brings into an ESU hatchery populations that are genetically similar regardless of their evolutionary contributions to the population – including those that erode the fitness of the naturally reproducing fish (e.g., reduced fitness of early-generation hatchery fish derived from wild broodstock; Christie et al. 2014).  This thwarts the ESA’s intent and is inconsistent with the ESU policy.



    1. The moderate genetic divergence standard fails to address many deleterious effects, both genetic and ecological, of hatchery fish on ESA-listed naturally reproducing populations, and their inclusion in the ESUs and DPSs with the naturally reproducing populations serves to undermine the recovery of naturally reproducing populations in contravention of the ESA’s express purpose.


When NOAA adopted its Hatchery Listing Policy eleven years ago, it emphasized the fact that some hatchery populations contribute to the survival and recovery of natural origin populations in embracing the moderate divergence standard.  That is certainly true in certain circumstances (Naish et al. 2008). However, we now know much more about hatchery effects. For example, recent research indicates that even hatchery fish propagated from local natural origin populations can diverge genetically from the wild population quite rapidly – particularly in steelhead (Araki et al. 2007, Christie et al. 2016) – and hatcheries can induce phenotypic changes in life histories (Ford et al. 2012) and age structure (Hankin et al. 2009).


Additionally, while carefully managed selection of broodstock may reduce genetic divergence from the source population in some cases (Waters et al. 2015), there can still be alterations to both behavior and genetics even when managers use techniques to minimize genetic divergence from the local stock (Hayes et al. 2013; Bingham et al. 2014).  Owing to these factors, and others, there is now substantial evidence that even early-generation hatchery fish do not survive as well as the wild fish and produce fewer offspring (approximately half the reproductive success of wild fish) (Christie et al. 2014). The combination of life history alterations, genetic divergence and poorer survival likely help explain why populations with hatchery production are prone to greater variability and poorer portfolio performance (Griffiths et al. 2014).  Consequently, such hatchery populations, even though they will always meet the moderate divergence standard, not only do not benefit the natural origin fish, they are likely impeding recovery by reducing fitness and productivity of the wild populations they interact with (Chilcote 2003, Araki et al. 2009, Chilcote et al. 2011; Hayes et al. 2013; Bingham et al. 2014). Based on the research, they clearly do not represent an important component in the evolutionary legacy of the ESU.


It is noteworthy and curious that in its Hatchery Listing Policy NOAA acknowledged the limited conservation value of hatcheries derived from local populations but adopted a standard that encompasses virtually all hatchery programs using local broodstock.  The explanatory statement supporting the policy repeatedly (and accurately) describes the potential benefits of hatcheries using fish from local populations as “short-term”, and notes that those benefits exist only when there are certain problems with the natural origin population, such as extremely low abundance or lack of adequate spatial distribution that creates a very high risk of extirpation should there be a catastrophic event, such as a wildfire or drought.  It bears emphasis that nowhere does the Hatchery Listing Policy identify a long-term conservation benefit from using such hatcheries.


The fact that any conservation benefit of hatcheries is short-term was also made by the Hatchery Scientific Review Group, which, in a major 2014 report stated: “The management of conservation programs is a matter of balancing short-term demographic benefits versus long-term fitness goals.  Conservation programs should be temporary and associated with biologically defined triggers to modify or terminate the hatchery programs.


On the Science of Hatcheries: An updated perspective on the role of hatcheries on salmon and steelhead management in the Pacific Northwest, pg. 3. Emphasis added.



The circumstances in which hatchery fish derived from local populations provide short-term conservation benefit are the exception, not the rule, and thus the majority of such programs – that have as a primary purpose producing fish for harvest – impede the recovery of natural origin fish by eroding their genetic fitness (Araki et al. 2007, 2009; Hayes et al. 2013; Bingham et al. 2014) and a myriad of ecological effects that can reduce survival of wild fish, including attracting predators and competing with them for habitat and food (Rand et al. 2013).


This absurd situation – where NOAA proposes to list less-than-moderately-diverged hatchery populations in ESUs and DPSs – is evident in the Proposed Listing Changes open for public comment. The vast majority of the hatchery populations are derived from local natural origin populations and thus genetically similar, but they are being used for harvest augmentation not conservation. A recent experiment evaluated the ability of a hatchery to meet conservation and production goals using wild steelhead as broodstock (Bingham et al. 2014).  The hatchery met production goals in six of nine years, yet despite using substantial conservation-based husbandry efforts, the authors still found a 60% reduction in the effective number of breeders over the nine years and consequently, hatchery fish displayed reduced genetic diversity and large temporal genetic divergence compared with wild fish (Bingham et al. 2014).  Based on the results, the authors – and others (e.g., Naish et al. 2008) – have concluded that major logistical issues need to be seriously considered to ensure the conservation benefits of programs that try to simultaneously achieve conservation and harvest goals.  This raises critical questions about whether such populations are providing important evolutionary contributions to the ESU or DPS, rather than the opposite.


Moreover, the lack of support for the proposed addition of hatchery populations pursuant to NOAA’s most recent status review is not in accord with the explanatory statement in the Hatchery Listing Policy, which states “the final policy requires that the relationship, risks, benefits, and uncertainties of specific hatchery stocks to the local natural populations be documented.”  70 FR 37208 (emphasis added).  The underlying technical memorandum (Jones 2015) pertaining to the Proposed Listing Changes addresses only the question of genetic similarity and does not present the type of analysis required.




We have amassed eleven years of practical experience and scientific research since the Hatchery Listing Policy was adopted.  That new information has more clearly identified both the limited circumstances under which hatcheries provide a conservation benefit to wild salmon and steelhead, and the myriad ways in which hatcheries that use broodstock from the local wild populations they are released into harm wild fish despite their genetic similarity. At several places in the explanatory statement to the Hatchery Listing Policy NOAA states that the agency will update the policy as new information warrants.  70 FR 37207, 37212.  That time has come. The best available science, when considered in light of the express purpose of the ESA, compels that the Hatchery Listing Policy be updated to reflect our current state of knowledge.


The specific revision that we are proposing – the exclusion of hatchery populations from ESUs and DPSs in the absence of evidence that they confer a conservation benefit to wild fish and are thus an important component of the evolutionary legacy – is consistent with the Alsea decision.  By not including hatchery populations in the ESUs and DPSs except in the limited circumstances described above, NOAA would avoid listing only certain populations in the ESU or DPS, the practice struck down by the Alsea court.


Lastly, it bears emphasis that not including most hatcheries derived from local, natural origin fish in ESUs and DPSs does not mean such hatcheries can’t be used even if they cause some degree of harm to wild populations.  They can as long as they do not run afoul of the ESA. That analysis is appropriately done when evaluating specific hatchery programs under the applicable ESA provisions.


Thank you for the opportunity to comment and your consideration.