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Action to Protect Salmon Urged

Scientists say their advice was dropped from a report to the U.S. fisheries service.

March 26, 2004|Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writer

Six leading marine scientists, who were hired as government advisors only to find their recommendations stripped from an official report, went public today with their views -- that federal action is urgently needed to protect more than a dozen populations of West Coast salmon and steelhead trout from the threat of extinction.

The scientists published their recommendations in today's issue of the journal Science after their advice was dropped from a scientific review of salmon recovery methods commissioned by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

"We were trying to do an honest job and we were called radical environmentalists," said Ransom Myers, a fisheries biologist from Dalhousie University in Canada. "It was troubling to administrators we objected to the policy that habitat did not need to be protected. There was a clear implication if we continued to talk about policy, the group would be disbanded."

The group, both in its initial review and in Science, recommended that the agency rewrite its regulations to ensure the continuation of federal protections for salmon and steelhead in California, Oregon and Washington state in the wake of a federal court ruling that put those safeguards in jeopardy.

William Hogarth, director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, disputed the scientists' claims that their views were squelched. "We don't censor our scientists," Hogarth said. "They were simply asked to separate out the policy opinions and send them to [Northwest Regional Administrator] Bob Lohn or myself and not make it part of the scientific report, which is put on the website."

The report left intact the scientists' review of a variety of approaches to sustaining both wild and hatchery-raised salmon.

The dispute echoes similar complaints by other scientists working for the federal government, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Recently, EPA staff members said that 21 months of research on mercury pollution from power plants was ignored in favor of industry recommendations that called for looser regulations of emissions. The wording of the regulation adopted by the EPA incorporated the exact language provided by a research and advocacy group that represents 20 power and transmission companies.

A group of 20 Nobel laureates and several science advisors to past Republican presidents last month wrote an open letter accusing the Bush administration of "suppressing, distorting or manipulating the work done by scientists" at various federal agencies.

"This administration has developed such a reputation for scientific censorship that it wouldn't be a surprise if this had been ordered removed from Washington," said Donald Kennedy, former president of Stanford University and now editor of Science.

Kennedy described the six scientists as top-notch and noted that their article easily withstood review by scientific peers before publication.

"Differences on scientific issues should be argued on the merits," Kennedy said, "and censorship isn't the way to conduct an honest debate."

The debate in this case involves the fate of 15 populations of salmon and steelhead trout that spend most of their lives in the ocean and then return to spawn in rivers and streams along the West Coast from Central California to the U.S.-Canada border.

All 15 of these distinct populations are sufficiently diminished to be listed as threatened or endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. However, the protected status of all 15 is now being challenged by developers, farmers, ranchers, timber interests and private property advocates who want to end restrictions on activities that the government says can harm streams that these fish use to spawn and raise their young.

For instance, the government forbids logging and tilling of soil in a buffer zone around streams and can limit water drawn from rivers for irrigation if it's needed for salmon to swim upstream.

The challenges to the restrictions were inspired by a 2001 federal court decision that ordered the removal of coho salmon in southern Oregon from the endangered species list. The reason, wrote U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan, was that salmon raised in hatcheries could be included in the count of wild fish because they are associated genetically and swim in the same river. And given that the hatchery produces the fish in abundance, the judge concluded there was no need for salmon in these rivers to be protected.

The fisheries service declined to appeal the ruling. Subsequently, fishing and environmental groups intervened, but lost their appeal last month when the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that an appeal was premature because of evolving policy.

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