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Study: Coastal coho sustainable
Study: Coastal coho sustainable

By TAM MOORE Oregon Staff Writer

ASHLAND, Ore. – Oregon’s coastal coho salmon are a sustainable population, probably in good enough shape to come off the Endangered Species Act protection they have been under for the past few years.

That’s the conclusion of a yearlong species evaluation by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife conducted using federal ESA standards. ODFW took the wraps off its conclusions here Nov. 19 during the biannual Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board conference.

“The preliminary finding is this ESU (ecologically significant unit of coho) is viable. It is sustainable,” said Jay Nichols.

He’s the biologist credited with coming up with the Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds. The state program turned loose private landowners, government regulators and watershed activists to focus first on coastal coho, then on all of the state’s watersheds.

Coho or silver salmon spend their first year in fresh water before heading out to the ocean. Unlike chinook salmon, which migrate seaward as juveniles, coho are vulnerable to the range of year-round water supply and quality problems in their home basin.

In 1990, fewer than 20,000 wild coho returned for spawning in the 19 largest Coast Range basins. More than 240,000 returned in 2002, the peak of a resurgence credited to favorable ocean conditions, limited fishing in lean years and watershed restoration projects by the hundreds.

Since 1997, according to preliminary data in the study, over $107 million has poured into coastal coho work. That funding is scattered from the Necanicum River in Clatsop County to the Sixes River on Oregon’s South Coast in Curry County. In addition, regulators all but shut down the ocean troll fishery and shrunk sports-fishing quotas to take pressure off what had been a dwindling coho population.

“We were harvesting those fish at huge rates. If we had not changed harvest, they probably would not have come out of this,” said Ed Bowles, ODFW’s fisheries administrator.

Nichols, Bowles and others defended data in their report before other biologists earlier in the week. Then they brought the good news to the watershed conference. The report has a long way to go before it turns into delisting of the coho, which were put on the threatened list under court order.

“It’s by no means a done deal,” Bowles said. “It is still problematical” that data will lead to a change in federal listing.

In December, a printed draft report goes to Oregon’s Independent Multidisciplinary Science Team for technical review. By midwinter it should be in the hands of NOAA Fisheries, the National Marine Fisheries Service, that has until June 2005 to say whether coastal coho should continue to have federal protection.

But already Tom Byler, Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s natural resource adviser, is talking about using the coho recovery story as leverage to get “assurances” that cooperating landowners won’t run afoul of the ESA. Oregon’s Board of Forestry has yet to complete fine-tuning of its streamside timber rules in salmon habitat, but that’s about all that’s outstanding in the state’s first round of actions promised under the Oregon Plan.

“You’ve got a purely voluntary based program with financial incentives” for landowners, Bowles said. “If you don’t back that up with assurances, there will be no incentive.”

Mike Kehan, head of NOAA’s Portland office salmon team, praised the ODFW work. He calls the agency coho re-evaluation a “partnership” between state and federal scientists and administrators.

NOAA, Kehan said, is “well on the way” to developing a recovery plan for coastal coho. It is also running a separate status report on the Southern Oregon-Northern California coho population that centers on the Rogue, Chetco, Smith and Klamath rivers. It, too, is expected in summer 2005.

Tam Moore is based in Medford, Ore. His e-mail address is tmoore@capitalpress.com.

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