NOAA review finds Oregon coastal coho salmon still at risk

Oregon coastal coho salmon remain at moderate risk of extinction from the continued decline of habitat in the rivers where it begins and ends its life, and should stay on the threatened species list, federal biologists said Tuesday.

The review released Tuesday by NOAA Fisheries Service was prompted by the settlement of a lawsuit brought by Douglas County, the most timber-dependent county in Oregon. The public has 60 days to comment before a final decision is made.

The case was the latest in a series of lawsuits that has made the Oregon coastal coho the most litigated fish in the Northwest, going on and off the threatened species list since first being proposed for protection in 1993.

"There weren't any surprises in this review," said NOAA Fisheries biologist Garth Griffin. "It's really the same issues and topics we've been talking about with Oregon coastal coho for 15 years."

Coastal coho were once the bread and butter of Oregon's commercial salmon fleet, but populations dropped precipitously in the early 1990s due to overfishing, misguided hatchery practices and destruction of freshwater habitat.

They spawn and spend the first year of their lives primarily in rivers running out of the Coast Range through private forest and farm lands.

Fishing is still allowed for hatchery coho and limited numbers of wild fish.

The review found that overfishing has been reigned in, and fewer hatchery fish are being released to compete with wild fish, resulting in improved returns.

But rivers continue to decline from logging, farming and urban development, particularly on private land. Habitat was better on federal land where logging has been cut back to protect fish and wildlife.

The reviewers added that stream restoration projects are helping but are outpaced by the habitat destruction still happening.

An upturn in ocean conditions that has produced plentiful food has helped sustain coho, but freshwater habitat may not be in good enough shape to get them through the next downturn, the review found.

The review team members said they were "particularly concerned" that global warming would make it even tougher for salmon by warming and changing both the ocean and streams.

Mary Scurlock, policy director for the conservation group Pacific Rivers Council, said the findings pointed out the need to further control logging, farming and urban development on private lands.

"We have made more progress in hatchery reforms than we have in changing our forest practices to meet the needs of coho recovery," she said.

Douglas County Commissioner Doug Robertson did not immediately return a phone call for comment.

Conservationists first proposed Oregon coastal coho for Endangered Species Act protection in 1993, and NOAA Fisheries tentatively agreed.

Hoping to avoid a dramatic decline in logging on private lands at the same time logging on federal lands was being cut back, then-Gov. John Kitzhaber launched an effort to promote voluntary habitat protection.

NOAA Fisheries endorsed the plan and decided coastal coho didn't need protection in 1997.

With one lawsuit after the other, coastal coho went on and off the threatened species list until 2008, the latest time NOAA Fisheries agreed to protect the fish.

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