The federal National Marine Fisheries Service announced that it will once again protect Oregon coastal coho salmon as a “threatened” species under the federal Endangered Species Act. This action follows a recent court ruling that found that the agency’s 2006 decision to deny listing to coho was not based on best available science. Specifically, the invalidated decision relied on a single assessment produced by the state of Oregon that was found to be of questionable scientific merit by federal and independent scientists. Previous scientific assessments had generally supported the conclusion that listing is likely warranted. Coho were previously listed as threatened between 1998 and 2004.
“Protecting coho under the Endangered Species Act is consistent with available science and is in the best interests of these salmon and the many people who value and depend on them,” said Chris Frissell, Pacific Rivers Council’s Director of Science and Conservation. “Despite recent progress here and there, coastal coho still face grave and difficult threats in their freshwater habitat, and likely from climate change. Decades of experience prove that federal listing brings new resources and promotes the social willpower needed to restore species that face exactly this kind of situation.”
“It’s time to put litigation over the listing of coho behind us, and give full attention to developing a sound recovery program,” said Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman. “We stand ready to work with Oregon and the federal recovery team to do what it takes to ensure recovery efforts succeed.”
“After ten-plus years of state-led restoration efforts, we still have no evidence that freshwater habitat is, on balance, improving across the range of the coho,” emphasizes Frissell, “Healthy freshwater habitat is the ultimate cap on survival and abundance of coho, and is the only defense these fish will have to buffer the impacts of climate change and other future challenges.”
“The coho’s decline has been unfolding for over a century in hundreds of streams and populations,” continues Frissell. “Every coho stream has its own tragic story. Now the key is to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to safeguard those few populations that remain productive and healthy, promote habitat recovery on a widespread basis up and down the coast, and make sure we’re accurately monitoring and evaluating success in both habitat and fish recovery every year.
Conservation and fishing groups have sought protection of Oregon coho since 1993, after it became widely recognized that runs had dropped drastically from historical levels exceeding a million fish to dangerously low levels in the few hundred thousands. Numbers have fluctuated somewhat since then, but remain comparatively low.
Coho declines precipitated an economic emergency and federal disaster relief on the coast in 1994-1995 after the collapse and shutdown of the commercial coho fishery. Oregon coastal coho are unique among west coast salmon populations in having such a large percentage of their habitat in private ownership, primarily timber and agricultural lands. Also, dams are not a significant factor in their decline. Over the last 14 years, the National Marine Fisheries Service has changed its mind regarding the need to list twice. Both flip-flops drew successful lawsuits that resulted in a listing, including this one.