Pacific Rivers has been advocating for the protection and recovery of Oregon coast coho populations for many years. We were one of the initial groups to petition for the listing of west coast coho rangewide in an attempt to reverse the trend of continued coho declines and localized extinctions. Oregon coastal coho declined from 1.39 million circa 1900 to 190,000 in the 80s. In 1997, returns in Oregon reached a 50-year low, with only 24,000 returning.
The coho were finally listed as threatened in 1998 after stalling by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and lawsuits to get the agency to take action. Unfortunately, in June 2004 the coho were delisted following a court decision that faulted NMFS for determining that both wild and hatchery fish belong in the same unit, for ESA listing purposes, but then only listing the wild fish. NMFS addressed this problem by listing hatchery fish, but not extending ESA protection from take to the hatchery fish. However, a new status review of the coho was initiated, giving the State of Oregon an opening to create a new push to keep the Oregon coast coho off the threatened species list. The State of Oregon conducted its own viability assessment and concluded that Oregon coast coho were viable. This finding prompted NMFS to decide to not relist the coho.
The best science, however, does not demonstrate that coho are currently viable. Rather, coho populations still need the protection of the ESA to help protect them from further decline and to work toward their recovery. Pacific Rivers and our conservation partners challenged in court the NMFS’s decision not to list the coho, and we prevailed! The judge found that NMFS’s decision not to list the coho was not based available science.
In response, NMFS officially relisted the Oregon coast coho as threatened on May 12, 2008. This is great news because a federal listing brings new resources and promotes the social willpower needed to restore species that face exactly this kind of situation.