Oregon Coast Coho Stripped of ESA Protections Despite Long, Steady Slide Toward Extinction

Mon, 01/16/2006

Oregon Coast Coho Stripped of ESA Protections Despite Long, Steady Slide Toward Extinction

January 17, 2006

Kaitlin Lovell: 503.827.5700 x. 13; cell. 503.789.7549
Jeff Curtis: 503.827.5700 x. 11; cell. 503.419.7105

Oregon Coast Coho Stripped of ESA Protections Despite Long, Steady Slide Toward Extinction

Embattled salmon whose numbers have dropped over 90 percent in less than 100 years deemed a success story by federal fish managers

(PORTLAND, Ore.) – More than four years after a controversial court opinion sent the Oregon Coast coho salmon’s future into a whirlwind of political controversy and public confusion, the federal agency in charge today announced its decision to formally remove the fish from Endangered Species Act protection.

The decision befuddled conservation groups, fish scientists and anglers who have watched Oregon Coast coho’s steady decline over decades. The coho had seen a modest up-tick in numbers since being ESA-listed in 1998, but are projected to have more tough times ahead this year and appear to need protection now more than ever.

“The question people need to be asking federal managers is ‘Why Oregon Coast coho, and why now?’” said Kaitlin Lovell, Salmon Policy Coordinator for Trout Unlimited. “We’ve got a population of fish literally on life support but only now showing signs of a pulse, so we pull the plug and declare it recovered? It makes absolutely no sense.”

Oregon Coast coho have dropped from around 1.5 million adults returning to spawn in the early 1900s to critical lows around 20,000 in the 1990s.  Over the decade from 1994-2004, coho averaged only 95,000 fish - less than 10 percent of their historic numbers.  Habitat protections, harvest restrictions and other protections may have prevented further declines in coho since ESA-listing 1998, but scientists believe the rebound may be largely the result of better ocean conditions. 

Scientists’ warnings apparently go unheeded

Regardless, fisheries experts say the modest upswing is only a very early step in anything resembling recovery, and removing the protections that precipitated it will quickly erase any progress and send the coho back on its way to extinction. The Pacific Fisheries Management Council projects last year’s run to drop by at least 25 percent this year. Many scientists – including many within NOAA – have been reticent to declare victory over such a relatively minor uptick, and have cautioned such thinking could be dangerous for the fish.

“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.”

Coho are among the hardest hit fish by stream degradation and habitat loss brought about by logging, as they spawn in smaller coastal streams in timbered terrain. Today’s decision opens the door for potentially unbridled harm to the precarious wild stocks through new logging, but also potentially through grazing, irrigation and other habitat loss. Approximately 7 million acres of Oregon Coast coho habitat could come into play as a result of today’s decision. Importantly, fishing regulations are not likely to change for the coho, with wild fish still required to be released when caught.

A Precedent for Extinction

Notably, similar habitat conditions and fisheries management as recently as the 1980s led to the extinction of two significant populations of Northwest coho. The entire population of Snake River coho went extinct in 1985, and a major segment of coho in the Columbia Basin between the Deschutes and Walla Walla rivers went extinct in the 1960s.

“Those fish are gone,” said TU Pacific Salmon Director Jeff Curtis. “If they leave behind any lesson it should be to avoid making the same mistakes that wiped them out again, but it appears we’re headed that way on the Oregon Coast.”

Fishery Science or Political Science?

Today’s decision comes after a long, embroiled legal and political process over the status of Oregon Coast coho.  A successful 2001 lawsuit challenging the listing of wild Oregon Coast coho due to the way NOAA Fisheries treated hatchery fish in the listing eventually led to the suspension of the listing in 2003. 

Today’s decision is based largely on a controversial review of Oregon Coast coho conducted entirely by state agencies that concluded that Oregon Coast coho were “viable.” Despite a June 2004 proposal from NOAA Fisheries to list Oregon Coast coho as “Threatened,” the agency later opted to rely on Oregon’s analysis to conclude the coho no longer need federal protection. A March, 2005  memo from NOAA’s Fisheries’ Science Center to the State of Oregon shows the final decision may have been based on something less than scientific consensus within the agency:

“. . . the (State’s) report has some important limitations, and the reviewers had concerns about many of the data, methods and conclusions. Although we have not attempted to formally re-evaluate the ESA risk of Oregon Coast (OC) evolutionarily significant unit (ESU) coho, many of the concerns discussed below raise questions about the confidence one can have in the report’s major conclusion – that the Oregon Coast coho are not threatened with extinction.”

For coho science experts’ contact information or a list of memo and report quotes on the Oregon Coast coho listing decision, please call Kaitlin Lovell: 503.827.5700 x. 13, or cell 503.789.7549, or email klovell@tu.org.


Date: 1/17/2006


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