Defenders and Coalition File Suit to Force Atlantic Salmon Listing

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(01/27/1999) - A coalition of ten conservation groups and individuals led by Defenders of Wildlife today filed suit in U.S. District Court against the Departments of Interior and Commerce for their failure to list a distinct population segment of Atlantic salmon as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

"The fact that less than 40 Atlantic salmon returned to these seven rivers last year unequivocally establishes that these fish are on the brink of extinction," said Defenders of Wildlife President Rodger Schlickeisen. "The continued failure to extend the protections of the Endangered Species Act to these critically imperiled fish is legally and morally indefensible."

In light of the extremely imperiled status of this population, the parties have asked Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Commerce Secretary William Daley to immediately publish an emergency listing for the salmon. Atlantic salmon numbers have dropped dramatically during the past decade. The U.S. Atlantic salmon run has historically been estimated at 500,000. Today, however, indigenous populations of Atlantic salmon occur only in a limited number of rivers in Maine. Last year, only 38 Atlantic salmon returned to the seven rivers comprising the distinct population segment. Recent data confirm that returns of wild salmon to each of the seven rivers have declined by as much as 90 percent in the past two years alone.

In 1995 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) proposed listing Atlantic salmon in seven Maine rivers. In December 1997, and at the request of Maine Governor Angus King, the agencies reversed course and agreed to accept a voluntary state conservation plan in lieu of federal listing.

"We believe politics and not science was the overriding factor in the services' decision to withdraw their listing proposal," said Michael Senatore, wildlife counsel for Defenders of Wildlife. "Maine's voluntary and prospective conservation agreement is simply not an adequate substitute for the enforceable standards of the Endangered Species Act."

Defenders says that the case of the Atlantic salmon is similar to other recent decisions in which FWS and NMFS have relied upon voluntary and future conservation efforts 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 Oregon state conservation plan in place of listing coho salmon under the ESA was illegal. Governor John Kitzhaber of Oregon and NMFS officials recently announced that they were dropping their appeals of the coho salmon decision.

"We urge both agencies and Maine to follow Governor Kitzhaber's lead with respect to Atlantic salmon," Schlickeisen said. "It is our hope to avoid protracted litigation and to reach a resolution recognizing the vital but distinct roles of Maine and the Endangered Species Act in the survival and eventual recovery of Atlantic salmon."

Defenders is joined in the suit by the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, Coastal Waters Project, Conservation Action Project, Forest Ecology Network, David Carle, Charles Fitzgerald, Douglas Watts, Don Shields, and Arthur Taylor. The parties are being represented by the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Meyer and Glitzenstein.

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Contact(s):

Cat Lazaroff, (202) 772-3270

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