Fishermen and conservation groups today announced they will challenge a recent Bush administration decision to remove protection for Oregon Coast coho under the federal Endangered Species Act. With strict fishing limits already in place, and changing ocean conditions expected to reduce salmon returns in coming years, experts say protecting coho habitat is vital for their continued recovery.
“Oregon coast coho are still on life support, and their recovery depends on protecting and restoring the rivers and streams these fish depend on to feed and breed,” said Dr. Chris Frissell, former Oregon State salmon biologist and Senior Staff Scientist with The Pacific Rivers Council. “Now is no time to abandon the vital habitat protection for these fish under the Endangered Species Act.”
Once a staple of Oregon’s salmon fishing fleet, and now off-limits to commercial fishermen, coastal coho runs have sharply declined from the mild surge in 2002. Coho are still returning in numbers that scientists say fall short of full recovery. Fishermen worry they will never see a return of their once profitable coho fishing seasons if coho numbers plummet due to further habitat loss.
“Now is not the time to slack off on habitat protections for coho salmon, or we risk another Klamath-type crisis,” said Glen Spain, with the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “Eliminating these protections shifts the conservation burden onto the backs of fishermen, without protecting the rivers and streams the coho depend on. Without federal habitat protections, there is no assurance the coho will recover or that draconian fishing restrictions will ever be lifted.”
“Good quality freshwater habitat is the backbone that supports coastal coho populations during these times of changing ocean conditions,” added Dr. Jack Williams, Senior Scientist for Trout Unlimited. “Removing federal habitat protections now will only undermine the progress that’s been made.”
Historically, more than 2 million coho salmon spawned in Oregon’s coastal rivers. The 1990s brought consistently low coho returns, which bottomed out at about 14,000 in 1997, a decline of more than 99 percent from historic levels. Coast coho returns recovered in the early 2000’s, and peaked at more than 200,000 in 2002. But since 2003, coho returns have declined, and federal scientists predict their number is likely to fall again this year and beyond.
“We are not certain what will be the full biological implications for Pacific salmon production over the next few years, but we are relatively confident that for some, such as Oregon Coast coho, the negative effects could be dramatic,” NOAA scientists warned in a 2005 memo to NOAA Fisheries Regional Director Bob Lohn. “The various indicators developed by the [NOAA Fisheries Science] Center scientists suggest that recent ocean conditions will result in low returns of Oregon Coast and Columbia River salmon for this year and possibly for the next few years.”
The slight rebound between 2001 and 2003 prompted the state of Oregon to prematurely declare Coast coho sufficiently recovered to be stripped of federal protection, which the fish had enjoyed since 1998. Removing current federal protections will strip crucial safeguards from the fully one third of prime coho habitat found on federal lands. NOAA Fisheries’ recent decision to remove federal protection for Oregon Coast coho under the Endangered Species Act led to today’s notice.
Fishing and conservation groups today notified NOAA Fisheries (National Marine Fisheries Service) that its decision to remove Oregon Coast coho from the federal list of threatened and endangered species violates federal law and sound science. The groups, represented by Patti Goldman and Jan Hasselman of Earthjustice, are the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources, Pacific Rivers Council, Trout Unlimited, Oregon Natural Resources Council, Native Fish Society, and Umpqua Watersheds.