Coho need more and better habitat to recover

Coho need more and better habitat to recover

by Greg Haller and Heather Reese

This past December, Pacific Rivers submitted comments to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) proposed Endangered Species Act (ESA) Recovery Plan for Oregon Coast Coho Salmon. Coho are listed as threatened under the federal ESA.

Recovery Plans are required under the ESA and must incorporate, at a minimum:

->  a description of the actions necessary to promote recovery;
->  measurable criteria that when met would result in the removal of the species from the ESA list; and,
->  an estimate of the time and cost to achieve the plan’s goals.

Oregon’s Coho populations have experienced dramatic declines from historic levels, due in large part to urbanization, deforestation, and poor water quality. The remaining Coho habitat provides an insufficient buffer against the impacts of climate change or years of poor ocean conditions. To protect the species from further decline and recover the species, there must be a net increase in high-quality habitat.

The draft recovery plan acknowledges the threats posed to Coho habitat by forestry and agricultural practices that destabilize slopes, degrade riparian zones, and pollute rivers. Pacific Rivers contends – and NMFS agrees – that the Oregon Forest Practices Act allows unsound and destructive timber harvest methods on private lands and is a primary factor in the destruction of Coho habitat. For example, despite the fact that studies have repeatedly shown that salmon and trout need forested streamside buffers of at least 100 feet to keep streams cool, the Oregon Board of Forestry recently opted for political expediency over the needs of fish, and adopted new rules that fall short of the buffers that fish need.

The actions identified in the draft plan will cost an estimated $55-110 million over the next five years, which is on top of the already $200 million spent since Coho were listed.

We noted the importance of restoring beaver populations as a critical element of Coho recovery. The dams that beavers build create excellent rearing habitat for juvenile fish – slowing swift water, trapping sediment, and providing food and cover. Beaver populations are fraction of their historic numbers throughout the range of Coho, so it is unsurprising Coho populations are in trouble.

While voluntary or incentive-based restorations efforts by private landowners can be effective, it is essential that agencies enforce existing regulations, crack down on bad actors, and update policies as needed to improve watershed health. Coho populations remain threatened by critical habitat loss and degradation. Until better and more abundant habitat is available to reverse the coho decline, the federal Endangered Species Act is a vital tool in protecting Oregon’s threatened coho populations.

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Photo of Coho salmon spawning on Salmon River, courtesy of U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

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