LEE HOCHBERG: Two-million baby salmon are being grown from eggs this year in the concrete pools of this Seattle area hatchery.
GREG MORCOM, Hatchery Worker: We average about 50,000- 55,000 a day. We can get upwards of 70,000. It depends on the size of fish. It's a lot of fish.
LEE HOCHBERG: Hatchery grown fish are at the heart of the latest debate over the Endangered Species Act, or ESA. 130 hatcheries in Washington, Oregon and California grow hundreds of millions of juvenile salmon and pump them into local rivers.
Once released, they swim alongside dwindling numbers of wild salmon. Those wild fish used to number in the millions themselves, but hydropower dams and other habitat destruction has decimated their runs. So precipitous has been the drop that in the last 14 years, half of the region's 52 wild breeds have been listed as endangered.
A controversial plan announced in May, though, could erode future protections for those salmon. The Bush administration says future ESA listings could be based not on the meager numbers of wild fish, but on a combined count of the wild and the hatchery fish. That plan could be finalized after a 90-day public comment period.
BOB LOHN, NOAA Fisheries: In some instances, closely related hatchery fish can, in fact, help a group of fish from going extinct. That's a key premise.
LEE HOCHBERG: Bob Lohn is regional administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, which regulates U.S. fisheries.
BOB LOHN: Under law we're required to consider them. The Endangered Species Act itself says we are required to consider conservation efforts and defines as part of that, artificial propagation, or in the case of fish, hatchery fish.
LEE HOCHBERG: The policy springs from a court ruling three years ago. Russ brooks of the Pacific Legal Foundation, a property rights group, challenged the ESA listing of Oregon Coastal Coho salmon. A federal court ruled the Coho listing was illegal.
It said since the government groups wild and hatchery Coho together as one breed, the two kinds of salmon need to be counted together to determine if the breed is endangered. Brooks says that's just common sense.
RUSS BROOKS, Pacific Legal Foundation: When you have millions of fish, how can they be threatened with extinction unless you say, "well, those fish over there, they're not real fish. Only this small portion right here is real fish."
Congress called the act the Endangered Species Act, not the "Endangered Species That we Prefer Act."
LEE HOCHBERG: The judge ordered the government to consider "the best available scientific evidence" in coming up with a new policy. The Oregon Coho were removed from protected status, and logging in the watershed began immediately.
Since it was NOAA fisheries that was being sued, it was up to the Bush administration to appeal the ruling but it didn't. So foresters, farmers, and developers sued to get 17 other protected salmon de-listed.
They wanted relief from what they said were onerous regulations that protected salmon habitat. But attorney Kristen Boyles of the conservation group Earthjustice says the presence of hatchery fish is not a reason to eliminate protection for wild ones.
KRISTEN BOYLES, Conservationist: The purpose of the Endangered Species Act is to protect species in their natural environment. It is throughout the act.
It doesn't talk about having animals in zoos, or birds in cages; it talks about species in their natural habitat. And hatchery fish, the continued production of hatchery fish cannot take the place of the protection and recovery of species in the wild.
RAY HILBORN, University of Washington: Any reasonable scientist would agree they're not the same.
LEE HOCHBERG: Ray Hilborn of the University of Washington's School of Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences says counting hatchery fish to determine ESA status will be a disaster for wild salmon.
RAY HILBORN: Biologically there's just no question: They're different, and very, very different. Hatchery fish are just no substitute for the wild fish. Hatchery fish feed on the surface and are vulnerable to predators when they go in the wild. Wild fish feed on the bottom.
LEE HOCHBERG: Scientists say hatchery fish compete with wild stocks for food once they're released to the rivers, they aren't as genetically diverse, may spread disease, and they're inept at reproducing.
RAY HILBORN: Putting more hatchery fish out there, all it does is mask the problem. You say, "Oh, there's still fish there," but they aren't self- sustaining.
They're only there because the hatchery is putting out many, many fish every time.
LEE HOCHBERG: NOAA Fisheries, which developed the administration's salmon policy, appointed six preeminent scientists to review salmon recovery efforts.
The scientists say they concluded hatchery salmon shouldn't be counted with wild runs. But NOAA rejected their findings. They published them instead in Science Magazine. NOAA's Bob Lohn says their conclusions were not science.
BOB LOHN: Their basic advice was the law is wrong. You should ignore it. They're important comments, we took them as concerns, but they weren't necessarily scientific findings.
LEE HOCHBERG: Panel chairman, biologist Robert Paine, disagrees.
ROBERT PAINE, University of Washington: It's science. There's almost no creditable science suggesting that hatchery fish, in fact, would prove to be an effective surrogate for wild fish and will aid in the recovery process.
LEE HOCHBERG: Farmers like Tad Vanderzanden like the direction the Bush administration is taking. He has a 1,400-acre wheat farm along a salmon stream near Portland.
TAD VANDERZANDEN: I have never understood how a hatchery fish is different genetically from a native fish, and just from my standpoint, it sounds like, ah, we have common sense coming back to the issue.
LEE HOCHBERG: VanderZanden says he hasn't been allowed to use herbicides on 60 of his acres alongside the salmon stream.
TAD VANDERZANDEN: From the edge of the field here to the first flags there we are not able to spray our chemicals for bugs.
So that's going to degrade this whole edge of the field, the whole 60-foot buffer all around the edge of the field that we're not going to be able to treat.
LEE HOCHBERG: He says further de-listings could put those acres back into full use, worth $40,000 a year. Builders and timber cutters also want the administration to use its proposed policy to de-list salmon.
But when the plan was leaked earlier this spring, there was criticism as well: 76 congressmen protested publicly to the administration, and newspaper editorials in swing states Oregon and Washington criticized the administration. Lohn received hundreds of angry letters.
BOB LOHN: There was a sense of panic-- a deep concern, if not panic-- saying that this might be used as a device to hasten us into delisting.
LEE HOCHBERG: He claims, for all of the attention given the hatchery fish decision, other factors will be considered as well, including habitat, genetic diversity and harvest rates.
BOB LOHN: Numbers alone are not grounds for delisting. Policy says that specifically. So it's not just a question of you have lots of hatchery fish, therefore we're closer to delisting. The question will always be, what's the status of the overall group of fish, especially the naturally spawning component? What has led them to this poor condition, and what will lead them out?
LEE HOCHBERG: In fact, instead of de-listing species when the plan was formally announced, NOAA added a 27th species. Environmentalists were pleased; anti-ESA forces angry. But both sides believe if the government goes ahead with its plan to count hatchery fish, de-listings will follow after the presidential election.
KRISTEN BOYLES: And if that policy goes forward and becomes final, it is a time bomb waiting for future de-listings when people aren't paying attention. And I can almost guarantee you that after the election there are going to be future delistings of salmon in our region.
LEE HOCHBERG: Environmentalist Boyles predicts more lawsuits forcing delisting, and indeed, brooks already has plans.
RUSS BROOKS: If the administration does not follow those federal court decisions, I will be back in court forcing the administration to explain why it is again flaunting the law.
LEE HOCHBERG: The government's Lohn calls the allegations of election year politics just plain false. He says listings may change some, whether this year or next, but they'll be based on science.
GWEN IFILL: The government recently announced it's extending the comment period on its salmon plan through mid-October.