Guide To the Proposal To List Atlantic Salmon
NEFSC Press Release

Questions and Answers

About the Proposed Listing

of Atlantic Salmon

George Liles
PH: (508) 495-2378
- or -
Teri Frady
FAX: 508 495-2239

Guide 00-01

NMFS Northeast Region


Why List Now?

Q1: If the fish didn’t need listing to protect them in 1997, why do they need it in 1999?

A: The fish needed protection in 1997, but the federal government determined efforts underway to protect the species, including but not limited to the state plan, provided adequate protection. By 1999, new threats were evident, especially increasing threats posed by disease and by non-North American salmon escaping from aquaculture facilities. Given the new threats and the perilously low numbers of salmon left in the rivers, it now appears the fish are endangered and deserving of protection under the ESA.

Q2: There have been newspaper stories about political pressure to list or not list salmon. Is the proposal to list driven by politics or by science?

A: It is driven by scientific analysis and by the law. The science is clear: the remaining salmon are a distinct population of animals. They are in danger of extinction. And they need additional protection.

The law is also clear: under the ESA, this is an important remnant population – the last known naturally reproducing stocks of Atlantic salmon in the United States. The ESA calls for the protection of such populations.

Q3: While proposing to list in 1999, the federal government mentioned the significant efforts made under the state plan, and at the same time said the plan did not offer enough protection. What was wrong with the plan?

A: The plan was – and still is – a good plan. We are continuing to implement the portions of the plan assigned to us, and we would expect to use the plan as a framework for the recovery plan required under the ESA. When it is fully implemented, the state plan will provide a number of important protections, but it appears the fish will need additional protection – especially against new or increased threats posed by disease and by aquaculture operations.

Q4: What is the new or increased threat of disease?

A: A new disease called salmon swimbladder sarcoma virus (SSSV) was found in hatcheries and resulted in losses of fish after 1997. These hatchery fish are used for river-specific stocking programs, and their loss places the naturally reproducing stocks at greater risk. Additionally, a very serious salmon disease called Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA) is spreading within the Canadian aquaculture industry and getting closer to the U.S. border. ISA has also recently been documented in wild fish in Canada.

Q5: What can be done to protect salmon from disease?

A: Disease is a threat to both farmed fish and wild fish. Protections might include a mandatory screening program to detect ISA and prohibitions against moving fish in or out of areas where ISA is a problem. Other protections might include making best management practices mandatory at aquaculture facilities (for instance, requiring measures to control sea lice, which can spread ISA). Strong, mandatory measures to prevent the escape of fish from aquaculture facilities might also help prevent the spread of disease.

Q6: How are salmon in aquaculture pens a threat to salmon in the rivers?

A: Farmed salmon pose disease threats and have the potential to pose genetic threats.

Farmed salmon are more susceptible to disease because they live in contained areas in relatively high density. Diseases in farmed populations can spread when a fish escapes. Because some aquaculture facilities are located near salmon migratory paths, there is also the potential for disease to spread to free-swimming fish as they migrate past the salmon farm.

Cultured salmon pose a genetic threat if they escape and reproduce with fish in the river. A particular threat is farmed salmon raised from European populations. Although Maine regulations do not allow salmon breeders to use European salmon or eggs in their breeding programs, breeders are able to use sperm (“milt”) from European fish.

Escapees that don’t reproduce nonetheless pose a threat if they escape in large enough numbers to compete for habitat the river salmon need to reproduce.

Q7: Some people have called for additional reviews of the science behind the proposed listing. Why not hold off on listing until this review is completed?

A: The services support peer review. Most of the scientific work that led to the proposal to list has already been peer reviewed.

The services have no objection in principle to another peer review, but the ESA requires timely action when a species may be threatened or endangered. The ESA process calls for a decision on the salmon DPS by November 17, 2000, so any additional peer review should be completed before then.

Q8: The few fish that returned to spawn last year left on their ocean migrations before the Maine plan was in effect. How can you decide that the plan is inadequate when the fish protected by it haven’t yet had a chance to return to spawn?

A: The number of returning fish is only one factor that goes into the decision whether or not to list. The proposal to list is the result of continued decline in the biological status of the species and the presence of new threats that lead the federal government to conclude that the DPS is in danger of extinction.

Q9: Why not hold off on the listing decision until the scientific questions have been resolved?

A: The science questions relevant to the listing proposal have been answered – the preponderance of evidence shows that the remaining fish in these eight rivers are remnants of populations that evolved in, and are specific to, these rivers. While parts of that science and some interpretations of some data are disputed by some observers, the federal government is obligated to implement the ESA using the scientific data available at the time determinations are made.

Q10: What urgency can there be when many of the fish in the rivers are hatchery raised stock anyway?

A: Hatcheries are tools for rebuilding stocks in the river. Continuing to keep the stock alive by perpetual stocking is not an option under the law. Under the ESA, the objective of a stocking program is rebuilding the stock to the point where the stocking program is no longer needed.

What’s Left To Protect?

Q11: Is there a wild population of salmon in Maine rivers?

A: There is a population of salmon that has been living successfully and reproducing for generations in the eight Maine rivers. Stocking programs probably have had some influence on the genetics of these fish, but the salmon in the eight rivers today are descendants of the wild fish that evolved in these rivers. They are different from any salmon anywhere else, and they are a storehouse of genetic information that does not exist anywhere else and could not be replaced if it were lost.

Q12: How could there be a genetically distinct stock in these rivers when people have been stocking the rivers for more than 100 years?

A: Stocking programs in the past were not sophisticated – often large numbers of very small fish were released, usually in one spot in the river. Very few of these stocked fish survived long enough to reproduce. Consequently, fish from the stocking programs typically had little effect on the gene pool in the river.

Second, much of the stocking involved moving fish from one river to another within the area where the listing is proposed – so this did not introduce “outside” genetic material. More recently, the stocking has been “river-specific.” This means that fish are taken from a river and kept in a hatchery to breed. The offspring are kept for a while in the hatchery and then put into the river out of which their parents came. When those fish survive and reproduce, they pass along the genetic heritage that evolved in that river.

Q13: If the 100 million fish put into the rivers in the last 100 years didn’t pollute the native gene pool, why is anyone worried about a few stray escapees from aquaculture pens?

A: Again, most of the fish put in the rivers didn’t survive to reproduce, and many of those that did survive were the offspring of fish living in those rivers.

The remnant populations in the eight rivers have a significantly different heritage from salmon anywhere else. The aquacultured fish have different genetics from the DPS fish -- many of the farmed salmon are genetically not North American salmon.

With low numbers of fish returning to spawn, aquaculture escapes could spell the end of these genetically distinct remnant populations. Twenty-five years ago, 200-300 fish returned to spawn in the Dennys River. In the 1990s, less than a dozen naturally-reared fish returned each year, while as many as 42 farm-origin salmon (in 1994) tried to swim upstream to spawn (the aquaculture escapees were not allowed upstream).

Q14: Many scientists say the salmon proposed for listing is a distinct population, while others say they may not be. Can’t the “uniqueness” question be settled by looking at the DNA of the salmon in the eight rivers and comparing it with the DNA of other salmon?

A: No. Genetics is a tool that can help biologists determine how closely two populations are related, but there is no hard-and-fast number that separates animals into distinct populations.

Biologists have, however, compared the DNA of salmon in the eight rivers with salmon DNA from other areas, and there are differences. Most biologists think the measurable genetic differences are consistent with the salmon being distinct populations.

More light is shed on the question when you look at traits that are known to be genetically controlled (or inherited). The salmon proposed for listing have a number of unique traits. For instance, they generally spend two winters at sea before returning to spawn – a heritable trait that is common only in the salmon that are proposed for listing.

Thus the determination that the salmon in the eight rivers are a distinct and unique population is based on a combination of genetic analysis and observation of heritable traits found in the fish.

Q15: It was reported in October that a scientist at the University of Maine is looking at DNA from salmon in several rivers. Will this study clear up the question of how closely they are related to the salmon living in these rivers before stocking programs began?

A: No. Because there are no biological samples that predate stocking, this study cannot answer that question. It also will not provide significant new information on the question of whether or not the DPS population is different from other salmon stocks. What the study can provide is information on the relatedness of stocks within the DPS – and that information may help with the management of brood stock.

Q16: Some people argue that the ESA is intended to protect animals that are really facing extinction, such as whooping cranes or condors or bald eagles? Isn’t the DPS designation a stretch?

A: No. The phrase “DPS” comes from the ESA. The concept of DPS is used sparingly (only with vertebrates, for instance), but it has been applied previously for various West Coast salmon, for Florida panthers, and southern sea otters.

Q17: Whether or not they are a “distinct population,” the salmon proposed for listing are still salmon and there are millions of salmon elsewhere in Maine and Canada. Why is it necessary to protect this population of salmon?

A: There is a practical reason for protecting distinct populations of endangered animals. Different populations have different genetic traits, and the species needs this variation in order to adapt to environmental changes.

In a similar situation, bald eagles were listed in the lower 48 states while there were healthy populations of bald eagles in Canada and Alaska.

The 6 million Atlantic salmon held in captivity in aquaculture facilities are analogous to animals in a zoo. Animals being raised in cages do not give a picture of the status of the species in the wild.

Farmed salmon are bred for production purposes; they do not need and may not have genetic traits that would allow them to live successfully for many generations in the wild.

Is listing the best way to protect the fish?

Q18: How is listing going to help salmon when many threats to salmon won’t be addressed: offshore fishery, increasing predation of salmon by growing populations of federally protected cormorants and seals?

A: The federal government is addressing other threats to salmon. The United States has worked with other countries to drastically cut the quota of salmon that can be taken in commercial fisheries. At the same time, we have increased research into salmon predators.

Q19: Isn’t it futile to spend time and money protecting habitat in Maine rivers while the salmon are facing other threats downstream and off shore?

A: It is impossible to predict what would happen if we protected salmon in just one part of their range. The ESA requires us to protect salmon in the freshwater habitat, and the federal government is committed to providing protection in the estuaries and oceans as well. Recovery depends on protection of all life stages and throughout the range of the species. We cannot afford to experiment with a partial approach to recovering the species.

It is an open scientific question whether the biological status of the salmon stock is determined more by events in rivers, estuaries, or open oceans. Scientists have been exploring this for some time and some recent work indicates the mortality rate may be higher in fresh water and during smolt outmigration than biologists previously thought.

But again, law and common sense both tell us that we need to protect these unique fish throughout their range.

Q20: Some people have warned that listing undermines promising partnerships (local/state/federal, public/private) that were just beginning to bear fruit. Why is the federal government “undermining” those partnerships?

A: Listing does not have to undermine partnerships. NMFS and FWS have a long history of working collaboratively with the salmon agency in Maine. We remain committed to that partnership and others with other state agencies, private industries, no-government organizations, watershed councils and private citizens. While we are recommending listing, we absolutely agree that the best hope for saving salmon is a continued effort to build strong and effective partnerships between public and private organizations.

Q21: Some have argued that salmon should be listed in an emergency action. If the FWS and NMFS are convinced the fish need to be listed, why not do it as quickly as possible?

A: Emergency listing is a tool that has been used when there is a single, identifiable and imminent danger – a dam being built, for instance. Emergency listings are temporary. The services do not feel an emergency listing is necessary or appropriate. In this instance, the services believe the routine listing process will protect the species.

Q22: Will the services be forced by the courts to do an emergency listing?

A: That issue is before the courts. NMFS filed its arguments against emergency listing in December, 1999. The judge could decide the case at any time.

What would be the impact of listing?

Q23:Some have warned that under the ESA the federal government could designate virtually all of Maine as critical habitat. How large an area would be designated “critical habitat”?

A: The ESA requires prudence in designating critical habitat. A proposal to designate critical habitat is being drafted and will focus on the eight rivers and perhaps include a limited portion of the riparian (riverbank) zone. That proposal will go through a separate process for review and comment by the public.

Critical habitat areas would not be “no touch” zones. If a federal agency wanted to take any action in the area, it would have to ask for a consultation. The state or private citizens wanting to use their land would not have to undergo a consultation – the critical habitat designation would affect the state or private citizen only if their actions caused the “take” of salmon.

If federally authorized, funded or conducted actions within the critical habitat have the potential to adversely affect Atlantic salmon, they would undergo consultation with or without the designation of critical habitat.

Q24: If the salmon are listed, will people have to prove their actions won’t hurt salmon, just like the timber companies had to prove their logging wouldn’t affect spotted owls?

A: No, the burden of proof is not on the private landowner or the state. The burden of proof is always on the government. In the famous spotted owl situation, the primary threat was from timber companies that wanted to log on federal land. People wanting to plant a vegetable garden on their own land would not have to prove that their garden will not harm salmon. If activity in the riparian zone does damage habitat and cause the "take" of salmon, it would be up to the government to prove the damage. Moreover, we hope to be able to use such conservation tools as habitat conservation plans, 4 (d) rules, safe harbor agreements, etc., to encourage voluntary conservation efforts in exchange for certainty.

Q25: If the salmon are listed, doesn’t it make it easy for private citizens to file law suits that could, if successful, make it impossible for industry to operate in the affected parts of Maine?

A: Once listed, the salmon would be protected from "take". While a listing does make it easier to file suit, anyone bringing suit still has to prove his or her case. Many of the suits filed by private citizens under the ESA have been dismissed. Again, we would like to continue to work with the state and its citizens to develop and implement conservation agreements that allow continued economic activity while protecting the future of Maine's Atlantic salmon.

Q26: Right now there is cooperation among state officials, landowners, farmers, and businessmen. Would a listing be the end of this cooperative spirit and the beginning of a system of rules and regulations and confrontation?

A: It shouldn’t be. The cooperative spirit can and should continue until the fish are out of danger. Those individuals and organizations that are already working to save the fish should find a listing has little effect on them – other than assuring they will have the help of the federal government.

NOAA/National Marine Fisheries Service * One Blackburn Drive * Gloucester, MA * 01930
Link disclaimer | Email webmaster | Privacy policy |     File Modified Nov 24, 2004