A federal judge has recommended that the Bush administration’s decision to remove endangered species protections for Oregon Coast coho salmon be declared illegal. The court recommended that coho’s legal “threatened” status be reviewed and a new listing decision be finalized within 60 days. Restoration of ESA listing would prohibit actions that harm the species and require the government to prepare recovery plans.
The decision comes in response to a lawsuit filed by fishermen and conservation groups last year. The case was assigned to U.S. Magistrate Judge Janice Stewart. The government will have an opportunity to object to her recommendations before they are approved by a district court judge.
The decision to withdraw endangered species protections from the coho was predicated on a novel scientific theory adopted by federal agencies. The theory held that coho are inherently resilient at low populations, and that they will always bounce back. The court cited extensive scientific critiques of that theory from government scientists, who said that it was unreliable and failed to pass the “red-face test.” The court ruled that the new theory did not represent the “best available science” as required by law.
“This is a victory for good science and for Oregon’s future,” said Earthjustice attorney Patti Goldman, who argued the case for the groups. “Restoring protections for these salmon today means a greener and economically vibrant Oregon tomorrow.”
“Oregon coast coho are still on life support, and recovery depends on protecting and restoring the rivers and streams these fish depend on,” said Dr. Chris Frissell, former Oregon State University salmon biologist and Senior Staff Scientist with Pacific Rivers Council. “This decision restores vital habitat protection so that the coho can begin moving toward recovery.”
Once a staple of Oregon’s salmon fishing fleet, coastal coho runs have sharply declined from their historical abundance. Fishermen look forward to rebuilt coho stocks which once constituted a substantial part of their income. They know this means rebuilding the streamside spawning habitat needed by the fish.
“For the sake of our fishing families and communities, now is not the time to slack off on habitat protections for coho salmon,” said Glen Spain, with the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “Eliminating these protections shifted the conservation burden onto the backs of fishermen, without protecting the rivers and streams the coho depend on. With federal habitat protections restored, coho have a chance to recover and, one day, draconian fishing restrictions can be lifted.”
Historically, more than 2 million coho salmon spawned in Oregon’s coastal rivers. Due to decades of aggressive logging and poorly managed fishing, those numbers collapsed. Runs bottomed out at about 14,000 in 1997, a decline of more than 99 percent from historic levels. The runs were listed under the Endangered Species Act the following year. Coast coho returns showed some improvements in the early 2000s but have generally declined since then, and still remain at a small fraction of historic levels.
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. The federal agency charged with administering the fishery, National Marine Fisheries Service overruled its own scientists — who raised grave doubts about Oregon’s novel population analysis as well as the status of the species — to remove federal endangered species protections in 2006.
The plaintiffs include the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources, Pacific Rivers Council, Trout Unlimited, Oregon Wild, Native Fish Society, and Umpqua Watersheds. They were represented by attorneys Patti Goldman and Jan Hasselman of Earthjustice in Seattle.
Read the court’s decision (PDF)