New recovery plan aims for delisting Oregon Coast coho salmon

Winter 2016

NOAA Fisheries today released a recovery plan for Oregon Coast coho salmon that calls for public-private partnerships to conserve habitat for the threatened species, positioning coho for possible removal from the federal list of threatened and endangered species within the next 10 years.

If the plan is successful, Oregon Coast coho could become the first of 28 threatened and endangered species of salmon and steelhead on the West Coast to recover to the point they can be delisted from the Endangered Species Act.

coho smolt

Coho smolt. Photo: John McMillan

“We can see that recovery is in reach for Oregon Coast coho, which is a testament to the hard work by the state, coastal communities and landowners to restore habitat and reduce threats from hatcheries and harvest,” said Barry Thom, Regional Administrator of NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region. “Strong partnerships have brought us this far, and they will be critical to get the rest of the way to delisting.”

As many as one to two million coho once returned to rivers and streams on the Oregon Coast, supporting fisheries that helped anchor local economies. Intensive fishing and heavy logging through the 1900s contributed to declines, and the number of spawning adults dropped below 15,000 in the 1980s. NOAA Fisheries initially listed Oregon Coast coho as a threatened species in 1998.

The condition of the species has since improved as state fish and wildlife officials have reduced the risks posed by harvest and hatcheries. Partnerships bridging state, local, tribal and federal levels have helped implement project to reopen and improve habitat. Recent numbers have ranged from more than 350,000 spawning adults in 2011 and 2014, dropping back to 57,000 in 2015.

The threats still affecting coho include degraded habitat, especially the loss of floodplain habitat where many juvenile coho spend their first year growing before migrating to the ocean. A lack of large wood in rivers that provides rearing habitat for young fish is also a factor. Reduced water quality and barriers such as culverts that block migrating fish pose continuing threats.

“The best available science tells us that habitat is the bottom line in stabilizing and rebuilding coho to the point they can sustain themselves,” said Rob Walton, recovery coordinator for NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region in western Oregon. Coho remain vulnerable to the effects of climate change on the rivers and streams where they spawn and rear, but improved habitat can help mitigate for those impacts.

The plan is voluntary, not regulatory, and hinges on local support and collaboration.  Coho recovery, and ultimately delisting, will depend in large part on voluntary actions by partners implementing the recovery plan, complemented by regulatory protections under the Endangered Species Act and other state and local directives. The plan promotes a network of partnerships that integrate the needs of Oregon Coast coho with the needs of coastal communities.

“The plan recognizes the critical role of local landowners and communities in bringing about recovery,” said Guido Rahr, president and CEO of the Wild Salmon Center in Portland, which is leading development of a business plan to guide local recovery measures. “We all must be part of a solution that will deliver multiple benefits for Oregon in the form of resilient communities, improved habitat and healthy fish populations.”

Home page photo of juvenile coho by NOAA