Atlantic Salmon Imperiled: Conservationists Plan Law Suit to Protect Atlantic Salmon

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(11/18/1998) - Defenders of Wildlife and seven other conservation groups and individuals today notified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) of their intention to sue the two agencies in federal court for failing to list Atlantic salmon under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

In 1995 the agencies proposed ESA listing of Atlantic salmon in several Maine. Last December, however, the agencies reversed course and agreed to accept the state's voluntary Atlantic Salmon Conservation Plan in place of federal listing. Defenders asserts that this decision was illegal and that the plan fails to ensure the conservation of wild Atlantic salmon in the United States.

"The available scientific evidence proves that wild Atlantic salmon in the United States are on the brink of extinction," said Defenders attorney Michael Senatore. "The Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service disregarded the scientific evidence and violated their statutory mandate under the ESA when they accepted Maine's voluntary plan instead of federal listing."

The ESA requires the agencies to base listing decisions on the best scientific information available. Political or economic factors cannot be considered. "Refusal to list Atlantic salmon had little to do with science and everything to do with politics," Senatore says. Maine Governor Angus King and several of the state's industries adamantly opposed federal listing of Atlantic salmon. Instead they developed the state's Atlantic Salmon Conservation Plan, and the agencies ultimately accepted it to prevent a federal listing.

Defenders says the case of Atlantic salmon is similar to other recent decisions in which FWS and NMFS relied upon state voluntary plans and other conservation plans to avoid politically controversial listings for species in need of federal protection. Conservation groups have successfully challenged several of these decisions for violating the ESA. In a recent case similar to that of the Atlantic salmon, the court ruled that substituting a voluntary conservation plan in place of listing coho salmon under the ESA was illegal.

"The agencies' refusal to list Atlantic salmon is a case study in politically driven and illegal decision-making under the Endangered Species Act," Senatore says. "There is simply nothing in the science or in the law that justifies the services' failure to extend protection of our nation's most important wildlife conservation statute to Atlantic salmon."

U.S. Atlantic salmon have plummeted in the past decade. In 1997, only 1,758 Atlantic salmon returned to U.S. rivers, down from 2,602 in 1993. Fewer than 500 were of wild origin. The recent downward trend is especially alarming because U.S. Atlantic salmon historically numbered half-a-million.

"The number of Atlantic salmon returning to U.S. rivers last year was one of the lowest ever recorded," says David Carle, executive director of the Conservation Action Project, a New England-based conservation organization. "Although last year's low returns are alarming, we are more concerned with the downward trend of returns during the past decade. The wild Atlantic salmon is one of the most imperiled species in the United States and clearly in need of protection. Only the Endangered Species Act can provide a proper defense."

The parties maintain that it is irresponsible not to use all available tools to ensure the conservation of Atlantic Salmon. ESA listing will not replace the need for improved state and private conservation efforts, but it will ensure a vital safety net that provides objective and enforceable conservation standards.

Defenders of Wildlife, a nonprofit conservation organization founded in 1947 and comprising more than 280,000 members and supporters, strives to conserve all native wild animals and plants in their natural communities.

Defenders is joined on the notice of intent to sue by the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, Coastal Watch, Conservation Action Project, David Carle, Charles Fitzgerald, Douglas Watts and Monica Castellanos. The parties are being represented by the Washington, D.C.-based law firm of Meyer and Glitzenstein. Trout Unlimited also sent a separate notice today of their intent to sue the agencies for failure to list the Atlantic salmon.

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Contact(s):

Mike Senatore, 202-682-9400 x292 (Legal)
Jesal Mehta, 202-682-9400 x265 (Media)