The district court's September decision found that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) illegally treated wild coho differently than hatchery-born coho when considering endangered species status. In today's ruling, the appellate court agreed with conservationists and fishermen who argued that regardless of disagreements over protections for wild versus hatchery fish, the wild fish deserve protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Oregon Natural Resources Council, Pacific Rivers Council, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Association, Institute for Fisheries Resources, Audubon Society of Portland, Coast Range Association, Siskiyou Regional Education Project, and the Sierra Club, represented in court by Earthjustice, sought an emergency order reinstating the ESA protections so that wild coho salmon continue to be protected while the legal case works its way through the court system. After the September ruling removed protection from coho salmon, NMFS had the opportunity to appeal the ruling and fight to protect the fish. It didn't.
"The Ninth Circuit prevented the sacrifice of wild Oregon coast coho by the Bush Administration and the National Marine Fisheries Service," said Patti Goldman, an attorney with Earthjustice. "All wild imperiled salmon, including Oregon coho, now remain protected."
While the destruction of coho habitat by logging and other development has cause much of the coho's decline, the introduction of artificially raised hatchery salmon harms wild salmon by introducing disease, changing their genetic make-up, and competing for food in their rivers and streams.
"This decision gives the fish a fighting chance," said Glen Spain of Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "Coho populations on the Oregon coast are now less than 5% of those in 1900, when over a million salmon returned each year to spawn, and they continue to face threats from clearcut logging and polluted rivers. The bottom line is this: without adequate ESA protection, salmon recovery simply won't stand a chance."
"The Appeals Court did the right thing," said David Bayles of Pacific Rivers Council. "The Endangered Species Act was designed to protect habitat for wild fish -- not concrete pools for man-made salmon."
After the September ruling, anti-salmon groups raced to force the federal government to remove protections from salmon stocks from Washington to California. Today's ruling signals the futility of those efforts.
"The Court threw cold water on the opportunists who are seeking to delist wild salmon up and down the coast, said Kristen Boyles, an attorney with Earthjustice. "It's time for them to stop posturing and join with the majority of Northwesterners who want our wild fish protected."
The eight conservation and fishing groups have worked for wild coho protection for over a decade; many were involved in filing the initial petitions that led to the threatened species listing for coho salmon in Oregon. The appellate court has ordered the case to be briefed this spring.