Oregon’s wild coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) season opened this week in many of the State’s coastal rivers and bays. From now until 30 November (or earlier if quotas are reached) anglers will have the opportunity to keep one wild coho per day even though the species is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Having a recreational fishing season for an ESA-listed species seems counterintuitive to some, but in the right situation, such an action can actually help promote and achieve valuable conservation objectives.
Providing Socio-Economic Benefits
“We have places along the Oregon coast where we know the wild populations are doing well enough to actually allow fishermen to keep wild, listed fish in small numbers when specific conditions are met,” says Lance Kruzic who works with the Sustainable Fisheries Division of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) West Coast Region. The Service has jurisdiction over marine species like the coho salmon that are listed under the ESA and works closely with Federal, state, and tribal co-managers to promote sustainable fisheries. “These fisheries in the coastal bays and rivers are coordinated with fishing out in the ocean to ensure the allowable impact levels are not exceeded,” continues Kruzic. “The coordination among all jurisdictions involved has worked really well to ensure adequate numbers of wild coho salmon seed the spawning habitat, while providing some other societal and economic benefits from fishing.”
Kruzic says allowing directed harvest of wild coho salmon listed under the ESA is the result of a collaborative effort between NMFS, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) and anglers. While the result is generally considered a good one for all involved, the process has been anything but easy. It started back in 1993 when NMFS was petitioned by Pacific Rivers Council and more than 20 other regional and national environmental groups to list the Oregon coast coho salmon under the ESA. The petitioners cited precipitous declines of coho salmon along the Oregon coast from somewhere in the order of 1.39 million fish at the start of the twentieth century to as few as 190,000 fish by the 1980s. When NMFS did not respond to the petition by the appointed deadline, a suit was filed and so began a back-and-forth, often litigious journey that, most recently, resulted in the Oregon coast coho salmon being listed as threatened in 2008.
“We Have Flexibility”
In the final rule document published in the Federal Register, NMFS affirms that the ESA provides significant “flexibility” in the case of threatened species. Specifically, NMFS has flexibility to not extend all take and other prohibitions afforded to an endangered species under Section 9 of the ESA. “We have flexibility under section 4(d) to tailor protective regulations based on the contributions of available conservation measures,” NMFS says. “We believe this approach provides needed flexibility to appropriately manage the artificial propagation and directed take of threatened salmon and steelhead for the conservation and recovery of the listed species.”
There are currently 14 so-called “limits” now in place as a result of the 4(d) rule. These limits allow for “take” of listed wild coho salmon when associated with NMFS-approved programs such as fishery management programs and artificial propagation.
In 2009, a year after the threatened listing, ODFW approved a limited autumn wild coho salmon season for four coastal rivers. This decision was informed by “predictions of a large coho return to the coastal rivers and streams.” Because the fish are listed as threatened, ODFW’s actions required approval from NMFS based on a detailed Fisheries Management and Evaluation Plan (FMEP). “We think this strategy is consistent with conservation and sustainability of wild coho,” said Robert Buckman, an ODFW district fish biologist, in a 2009 press release. “The biology is very convincing that projected harvest rates do not present any significant risks to these coho populations.” NMFS agreed and a limited season for ESA listed coho salmon ensued for the first time since 1993.
The 2014 Season – Collaborative Effort Well Worth It
“The forecasts for both coastal fall Chinook and coho were strong for 2014 and ocean fisheries so far have lived up to expectations,” said Chris Kern, ODFW manager for Columbia and Marine Programs. “Fishing for coho and Chinook in coastal rivers should be outstanding.” This year, fisheries managers are predicting 175,000 wild coho will enter Oregon coastal basins, and wild coho seasons have been set in 13 of those basins.
NMFS’ Kruzic is looking forward to the fall coho season, and he thinks the collaborative effort has been well worth it. “These harvest opportunities for wild coho salmon are dependent upon productive coastal streams and estuaries necessary to produce and sustain these salmon runs. No hatchery programs are needed for these opportunities. Continued protection and restoration of habitat is necessary to ensure wild salmon have a place to live and reproduce. This will sustain these fishery opportunities into the future.”