Can we save coho salmon in the Rogue Basin?
Over the last 2 million years, wild Pacific salmon developed fascinating life histories that include a freshwater birth, an oceanic adulthood and a return to freshwater to spawn and die. Salmon evolved over millennia—pioneering waterways after Pleistocene glaciers retreated, persisting through volcanic eruptions and surviving epic floods. They have endured through adversity for thousands of years and now we face the greatest challenge: preventing their demise.
Less than two centuries ago, wild salmon were abundant in the Rogue and Klamath River watersheds. Today, wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest are threatened with extinction from an onslaught of stresses. Starting in the early 19th century, over-fishing and cannery technologies were the first significant impacts to wild salmon, followed by mining, beaver eradication, logging, road-building, dam construction, water withdrawals, loss of habitat, and most recently, urban development that often takes place in riparian areas and floodplains that are essential for healthy salmon habitat. While these historic and ongoing impacts continue to harm wild salmon today, they are compounded by ever increasing demands for water, pollution and climate change.
"Based on the...discussion of the population viability parameters, and qualitative viability criteria presented in Williams et al. (2008), NMFS concludes that the SONCC coho salmon ESU is currently not viable and is at high risk of extinction." - NMFS draft recovery plan for Southern Oregon/Northern California Coastal Salmon.
In 1997, coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) was listed on the Endangered Species Act for the southern Oregon and northern California coast (essentially what is also known as the Klamath-Siskiyou) because they are in danger of being extirpated over a vast area of their range. Federal agencies are required by the Endangered Species Act to complete a “recovery plan” that outlines how we can take actions to stop the trend toward extinction for a listed species. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is charged with the recovery of anadromous fish—anadromous being fish, like salmon, that spend part of their life in freshwater and part of their life in the ocean.
In February 2012—fifteen years after the southern
Oregon/northern California coho salmon was listed on the Endangered Species
Act—NMFS issued a draft “recovery plan” for the threatened fish.
The goal of the plan is to recover the species to the point where it can be taken off of the Endangered Species list because it has improved so much that it is naturally self-sustaining and no longer threatened with extinction. Click here to download the executive summary of the draft recovery plan.
The bad news is that the likelihood for wild coho to be removed from the Endangered Species list is not very good. In the majority of its range in southern Oregon and northern California, coho salmon are at high risk of extinction. Current populations are very small compared to historic numbers and the related loss of genetic variation makes them less likely to withstand environmental stresses. Conservation biologists use the term “extinction vortex” to describe a situation where a population is reduced to such a small size that it is difficult for that population to recover.
The good news is that the draft plan has a tremendous amount of local information on the status of coho salmon and offers hundreds of actions to help recover this species, including increased stream flows, better regulation of suction dredge mining, revision of the Oregon Forest Practices Act, removal of logging roads that choke streams with sediment, city ordinance revisions to ensure coho habitat needs are accounted for, and the reduction of pollution.
Recovery plans are "road maps" to recovery, yet the draft fails to identify measurable, specific standards and criteria needed for restoration actions or habitat protections. For example, the plan states that salmon need more water in streams, yet it sets no minimum flow recommendation for any streams in the region, not even high value streams that could serve as core habitat to help re-populate the species.
We have a lot of work to do to turn the ship around, and it’s going to take everyone pitching in to save wild coho in the Rogue and Klamath Basins. Rogue Riverkeeper and KS Wild are working with allies to submit comments on the draft plan.
"For more than a century we have known that physical changes in the Pacific Northwest—mining, logging, reclamation projects, dam building, urban and industrial wastes, and treating waterways as production arterials—have brought wide-ranging, systemic, and multifaceted disruptions to salmon habitat...The size of the runs have continued to diminish everywhere, and not long ago the federal government began issuing the first of its endangered-species listings...it is time to acknowledge that we have created a very different set of landscapes and waterways from those that existed in 1850...Our ability to restore these altered environments to again provide a viable habitat for salmon will test our will to save a species we consider a cultural talisman."
- Williams G. Robbins, from Oregon Salmon: Essays on the State of of the Fish at the Turn of the Millennium