May 30, 2020

Maine sues feds, requests salmon data > Genetics information demanded

Believing that federal officials may be conspiring to hide information from Maine decision makers, the state has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government demanding release of all the genetics information federal fisheries officials used to determine that Maine’s wild Atlantic salmon should be considered for listing as an endangered species.

Gov. Angus King said the state could not adequately respond to the proposed listing of salmon — which, because of more than a century of stocking, he believes are not wild — without being able to review all the genetics data used by a federal scientist to determine that Maine’s fish qualify for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The lawsuit, against the U.S. Department of the Interior, Department of Commerce, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Geological Survey, was filed in federal District Court in Portland on Thursday. It seeks an injunction to prevent the consideration of listing salmon as an endangered species from moving forward. The state also asked the court to extend the public comment period on the proposal for at least an additional 30 days. The comment period is slated to end March 15.

“This is outrageous,” Gov. King said Friday. “The federal government has proposed to list Atlantic salmon based on scientific information that it refuses to let us examine. We cannot adequately respond to this proposed listing, which would have a devastating effect on the Down East economy, if we are not allowed to examine the data upon which the listing is based.

“It’s irresponsible and it makes me suspicious that there is something in the data they don’t want us to see,” the governor added.

Federal officials said they had not had a chance to review the lawsuit, which was posted on Gov. King’s Web site Friday afternoon, but that they believed the relevant data had been sent to Maine.

“We thought everything had been released,” said George Liles, a spokesman for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the agency that oversees the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Liles stressed that genetic data were only a small portion of the biological information the fisheries agencies considered before proposing that Maine’s Atlantic salmon should be listed as an endangered species. Federal scientists also considered behavioral differences, such as the age when they return to their native rivers and the number of eggs laid by the females, to determine that Maine’s population was a distinct entity.

In November, the federal government proposed that Atlantic salmon in eight Maine rivers be listed as an endangered species. The rivers are the Dennys, East Machias, Machias, Narraguagus and Pleasant in Washington County, the Ducktrap in Waldo County, Sheepscot in Lincoln County, and Cove Brook, a tributary of the Penobscot River near the Hampden-Winterport town line.

Last year, a fisheries scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey studied samples from 1,762 salmon from Maine, Europe and Canada. After analyzing patterns within the fish DNA, the scientist, Tim King, concluded that Maine’s fish contained unique genetic material indicating that they were related to wild salmon that lived in the rivers centuries ago. This qualifies the fish as a “distinct population segment,” a subset of a species which can be protected under the Endangered Species Act, federal scientists concluded based on King’s study.

Gov. King and the state’s congressional delegation question this assertion, claiming it is based on faulty data. Since fish from other rivers in Maine and Canada have been stocked into the rivers now slated for federal protection, the governor has long maintained that the so-called wild fish in Maine were no different from the other salmon that live off the state’s coast.

The state has retained Irving Kornfield, a zoology professor at the University of Maine, to review the data and determine if the fish in question are wild. In 1994, Kornfield headed a panel of scientists chosen by the governor to analyze genetic material from Penobscot River fish to determine if the federal government were justified in proposing to list salmon as an endangered species. The government dropped that endangered species listing proposal in 1997 after the state come up with its own conservation plan for the fish. The government revived the listing proposal last year because so few of what they consider wild fish are now returning to the eight rivers to spawn.

In 1995, Kornfield’s group concluded that if the Penobscot River fish were a dog it would not be certified by the American Kennel Club. The group focused on the Penobscot fish because thousands of them were used to stock the eight rivers in question.

The information the state now seeks is Tim King’s data related to his tests on Penobscot River fish.

Reached at his office in Orono on Friday, Kornfield said that although King’s lab has sent him lots of data, he has yet to receive a template necessary to make sense of that data. A template would provide a guide for interpreting the data.

“We all need to look through the same pair of glasses, and the template is those glasses,” Kornfield said.

In addition to the template, Kornfield said raw data on the Penobscot fish samples also have not been sent.

He said his research into the issue has “reached a quagmire.” Kornfield lamented the fact that the genetics review has become so complicated and now involves so many bureaucrats. Because his requests for data from Tim King now are channeled through so many levels of government bureaucracy, he joked that it’s surprising he hasn’t been sent genetics information about right whales.

In January, Kornfield obtained CD-ROMs purported to contain the genetic data he had requested but determined that the information was unreadable. A subsequent analysis by the Maine State Police Crime Laboratory came to the same conclusion, according to the state’s lawsuit.

On. Feb. 16, Kornfield received more disks containing genetics data but recently discovered that the template needed to make sense of that data was not included. According to the state’s lawsuit, federal officials acknowledged that the template was not included and said it would be sent by March 3.

Because the public comment period on the endangered species proposals is slated to end March 15, the state determined that this was too late and filed suit.

In a telephone interview from Washington, D.C., Gov. King said suing the federal government was a last resort. He acknowledged that a court was not likely to make a decision before March 3, but that the state could not rely on federal officials to provide complete, usable information this time around.

“I’m completely amazed that our own government agency that is developing information with the taxpayers’ money won’t share it with us,” King said. “I feel like I’m chasing the Nixon tapes.”

Trudy Harlow, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Geological Survey, the agency that runs the West Virginia lab where Tim King works, said officials in Maine are asking for very complicated technical information. But, she said, the agency has made “every effort to comply fully and in good faith with the state’s request.”

In addition, she said it was not unusual for scientists to disagree — especially when it comes to complicated topics such as salmon genetics.

On Friday, Maine’s U.S. senators sent letters to the secretaries of Interior and Commerce asking that the public comment period by extended by at least 30 days.

“It is unconscionable that [the departments] have continued to block the efforts of outside scientists to review the very serious question of the genetic integrity of these Atlantic salmon to determine if it meets the standard of a distinct population segment,” Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins wrote.

The state of Maine is already an intervening party in a lawsuit brought by national environmental groups against several federal agencies for not going ahead with the salmon listing proposal in 1997.

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