Federal fisheries managers finalized a 10-year plan Wednesday to bring Oregon’s coastal coho back from threat of extinction. It lays out voluntary steps federal, state and private landowners should take to ensure recovery of the species.
Under the Endangered Species Act, fish and wildlife managers are required to create recovery plans for listed species. Oregon coast coho are currently listed as “threatened.”
The plan will be used by federal agencies as guidance when making management decisions affecting the salmon’s range. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fishery division cannot use the plan to compel conservation action by states and private landowners.
That said, coastal coho likely wouldn’t be removed from the endangered species list without private and public landowners taking some conservation actions outlined in the plan.
Oregon coastal coho can be found in rivers between Seaside and Port Orford. The runs once numbered more than a million fish annually. In the past few years it’s been between 50,000 and 350,000 fish. Recent discrepancies in runs can largely be blamed on poor ocean conditions linked to climate change.
“Salmon numbers will always vary with ocean conditions, but the plan seeks to improve habitat so that salmon are resilient to those changes,” said NOAA Fisheries spokesman Michael Milstein.
NOAA’s Oregon Coast Recovery Coordinator Rob Walton says West Coast salmon face threats from dams, overfishing, hatcheries and loss of habitat.
But Oregon coast coho, an evolutionary distinct subset of larger Pacific coho populations, aren’t significantly affected by dams. Overfishing and hatchery issues, while significant factors in the coho’s initial decline, are largely problems of the past.
For Oregon coast coho, habitat loss and degradation is the biggest challenge. Young coho need a complex network of streams, wetlands and estuaries to thrive.
“We need to add to [habitat] but we do not need complete restoration of historical conditions,” said Walton. “If we can increase quantity and quality of rearing habitat in a volunteer plan, we’re optimistic that we can get to recovery within the next 10 years.”
That’s a very quick recovery window compared to other endangered salmon on the West Coast. Walton says it’s a testament to how relatively healthy the Coho population is and how much work has already been done to recover the species.
The plan recommends specific conservation actions tailored to each watershed in the salmon’s range, including changes to agriculture, timber and mining practices.
The Oregon Department of Forestry is currently updating stream buffer rules on state and private timberland. It’s a point of contention if those changes are substantial enough to have a significant impact. But it’s these kinds shifts in how forests and waterways are managed that are echoed in the federal plan.
Conrad Gowell of the Native Fish Society says this Oregon coast coho plan is different from those of the past because it gives a more nuanced picture of success.
“We’re starting to shift the idea of what recovery is,” he says.
NOAA isn’t just looking for a specific number of salmon to return to Oregon’s rivers. It looking at other factors such as how well the coho are distributed and behavioral differences in the population. Gowell says this is a positive development.
“What constitutes health for coho salmon?” he asks. “It’s not just a bunch of fish. It’s fish using different habitats and spawning at different times.”
This more holistic approach improves resilience, making things like policy shifts, climate change and natural disasters less likely to put the Oregon coast coho at risk of extinction in the future.