Coho boom of 2002 may herald recovery

February 6, 2003

By Jonathan Brinckman

The Oregonian

Portland, Oregon


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Oregon's coastal coho, a feisty salmon that suffered declines sharp enough to warrant endangered species protection, has rebounded to numbers not seen since the early 1950s.

Roughly 242,000 wild coho returned to Oregon's coastal rivers last year, more than 15 times the record low of 1997, when just 14,068 returned.

State biologists are stunned: They had predicted just 71,800 wild coho would enter Oregon rivers to climb their way back to the streams where they were born in 2002.

Hatchery-born coho also had an extraordinary year. State officials had predicted that 362,000 cultivated fish would return to coastal rivers and the Columbia in 2002. The actual number was 660,100.

"This is greater than anyone could have imagined," said Steve King, salmon fishery manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The huge returns were driven by a dramatic improvement in ocean conditions combined with severe restrictions on fishing. The coho's historic decline had prompted former Gov. John Kitzhaber to implement the state's sweeping salmon recovery plan, aimed at stream rebuilding and habitat improvements. But experts agree it's too soon to link 2002's profuse returns with those efforts, launched in the late 1990s.

State and federal scientists also say it's too early to remove Oregon coastal coho from the endangered species list, because salmon returns show a history of wild fluctuation. Dramatic climbs are often followed by precipitous plunges.

The coho's upward spike is raising new problems for the Endangered Species Act, however. The powerful federal law is already under attack by people who think that wild salmon should not be listed when hatchery salmon are abundant. Oregon coastal coho, listed as threatened in 1998, were briefly removed from the list of federally protected animals in September 2001, when a judge ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service had erred when it applied the Endangered Species Act differently to wild and hatchery coho.

Oregon wild coho are again protected while an appeals court considers the matter. But efforts of those who oppose the listing continue. "Clearly, when you have a quarter of a million wild fish returning, it's hard to justify a listing," said Russell Brooks, the attorney who brought the lawsuit against the coho listing.

Controversial suit pending Garth Griffin, a supervisory biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service, now known as NOAA Fisheries, said long-term trends are more important than short-term fluctuations. "Those of us required to look up at the big picture of these things, we try not to get caught up in short-time stats," Griffin said.

The agency is conducting a review of federal hatchery policy -- triggered by the 2001 legal ruling -- and will use that information when it decides in November whether coho and another 22 runs of West Coast salmon should be removed from the endangered species list.

"We still have a lot to learn and a long ways to go," Griffin said.

The office of Gov. Ted Kulongoski agrees that Oregon coastal coho should retain federal protection.

"We would be cautious about recommending a delisting at this point," said Jim Myron, a natural resource policy adviser to the governor. "You'll need a few more life cycles before you can say coho are reestablished."

Coho numbers fell because the fish are particularly vulnerable to the degradation of streams and rivers where they spend 18 months -- half their lives -- before entering the ocean. Intensive logging of the Coast Range in the 1980s -- before streamside protections were tightened -- damaged streams where coho spawn. Unlike fall chinook, which spawn in more robust rivers and streams, coho spawn in fragile, upper-elevation streams.

Huge harvests precede decline

The plight of the coho was worsened by the enormous commercial and sport harvests of the 1970s and 1980s.

Recovery began when ocean coho fishing was shut down in 1994. Fishing restrictions have been eased slightly since then, but harvests remain sharply down. The average Oregon commercial and sport harvest from 1970 to 1993: 1.27 million coho a year. The 1994 to 2002 average: 67,000 coho a year. Sport fishermen are now only allowed to keep hatchery coho, identified by a missing adipose fin.

Then, in 1997, Kitzhaber released his Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds. The plan, an effort to persuade the federal government not to list Oregon coho under the Endangered Species Act, encourages voluntary efforts by private landowners to protect and restore coho streams. The Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, created by the plan, has since awarded $87 million to jump-start more than 1,300 stream and river restoration projects. Those projects are directed by 130 local conservation groups across the state, including 90 watershed councils.

State efforts are long-term

The plan is improving conditions for salmon. But many of the projects -- such as the planting of trees along stream banks to increase shading of water -- will take decades to take effect. Oregon officials concede that they cannot take credit for last year's boom in coho numbers.

"What we've done is incremental," said Kelly Moore, the plan's monitoring policy adviser. "The biggest factors (last year) were the ocean and fishing restrictions."

Ocean currents off Oregon were onshore through much of the 1990s and rich upwellings of cold water were less frequent, which meant that ocean waters last decade were warmer and lower in nutrition. That barren circumstance provided adult salmon of that era with little to eat and made juvenile salmon vulnerable to mackerel and other predators cruising the warm sea's gin-clear waters.

More recently, increased upwellings transformed the ocean to a colder, nutrient-rich sea blooming with plankton. That's been a boon for coho and other salmon species; Columbia River chinook and steelhead have also surged to near-record numbers in recent years.

Easing fishing restrictions State biologists expect that they will be able to increase allowed coho harvests this year without imperiling wild stocks.

State officials say that the sport harvests this year will probably be set at about 40,000 fish, twice last year's level.

The pre-season forecast for returning hatchery coho this year is 863,100, more than twice last year's pre-season forecast. Harvest decisions for 2003 will be made in March.

Biologists, meanwhile, hope that when coho numbers decline as cyclical ocean conditions reverse, the fall will not be nearly as precipitous as in the early 1990s. Higher wild coho numbers could let officials raise fishing levels permanently.

"As an agency and a bunch of people who have worked for this for years, we couldn't be more pleased with what's happened," said Burnie Bohn, assistant chief of fisheries for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "It's a popular fishery off the coast and important to coastal economies."

Sport fishers like coho because they strike vigorously, frequent the top layers of the ocean that can be reached easily and -- despite their small size -- fight fiercely. Commercial fisherman like them because they once provided a good livelihood.

"The importance of the coho was that there were so many of them," said Don Stevens, a retired salmon troller who chairs the salmon advisory subpanel of the Pacific Fishery Management Council. "You used to be able to get 100 a day easy, sometimes 200 a day."

Steve Jacobs, a research biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, worried that the low returns of the 1990s meant that wild coho might never rebound. The enormous return last year, he said, shows that coho can rebound far more quickly than he once thought.

Jacobs directs the Oregon Coastal Salmon Inventory Project, which employs 49 stream surveyors who counted coho in about 500 randomly selected miles of stream last year. Statistical methods have been used to calculate total abundance since 1990. The agency has also been monitoring 48 "index streams" for spawning coho since 1950. That program does not give a total count for coho, but this year's average of 46 spawning fish per mile has not been exceeded since 1952, when the average was 53 fish per mile.

"I was starting to wonder with the poor returns ... whether coho could ever come back," Jacobs said. "Last year changed my mind."