The First Endangered Salmon

The First Endangered Salmon

(Second in an eight-part series on Pacific Rivers’ history and successes)

Standing next to the Elk River in southwest Oregon in the Siskiyou National Forest, Chris Frissell saw trees. A sea of trees. Most of them were pretty darn big. Many of them shaded the nearby pools for migrating and spawning coho salmon.

It was 1988, and Chris was standing within a proposed federal timber sale. The Pacific Rivers Council and other environmental groups were trying to get the Forest Service to scale back on this sale, to protect clean water, fish and wildlife. They were somewhat successful. As with elsewhere in Oregon, some of the big trees along the Elk River still remain. Whether there are enough of them to matter is a question for debate.

But simply saving big trees results only in very tall relics for hikers and tourists to gawk at. They are not enough to save a watershed.

The council was looking to protect entire watersheds — trees, fish, frogs, water, gravel, pools, shrubs, mushrooms, bugs… everything. Because it is all linked. And yet, some species do more of the linking than others. Salmon, for example.

“Coho salmon used to migrate all the way to Idaho,” says Chris. Now they are relegated to coastal streams. Cannery records tell us that in the last 100 years, 99 percent of coho have disappeared from the Pacific Northwest. Oregon’s Siuslaw River is a good illustration. In the early 1900s, 230,000 coho returned to the Siuslaw River. By the end of the century, about 2,500 came back each year.

On the Elk River – way down south on the Oregon Coast where Chris was standing on that fateful day in 1988 when he first got involved with the Council – salmon weren’t doing so hot. In fact, by 1988, Chris and other scientists had begun noticing that Oregon coastal salmon were disappearing. Yet, state fish and wildlife agencies were operating under an assumption that there were plenty of salmon.

“My goal has always been to connect science to policy,” Chris says. The Pacific Rivers Council has the same goal, so in 1993 Chris joined the staff, and helped get the National Marine Fisheries Service to review whether or not coho should be listed under the Endangered Species Act. The petition Chris and PRC submitted to the fisheries service was the first of its kind in two ways – the first asking for an ESA review of a species throughout its entire range as opposed to just one area, and the first to be endorsed by a chapter of the American Fisheries Society.

The American Fisheries Society is made up largely of state fish biologists – some of the same biologists that work for the state agencies that manage coho. For state biologists to ask the national fisheries service to review the species was a bit revolutionary. It could result in less autonomy for state agencies. But state biologists working on the ground saw what was happening – salmon runs dwindling year after year – and made the bold move to ask for a federal review.

The rest is history – complicated history. Coho are now listed as threatened. The state of Oregon has made large strides toward ensuring their protection in coastal estuaries, but not enough. Returning numbers of coho are still low. But they are still here, plowing their way every September and October through Oregon’s many coastal estuaries and valleys.

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by Natalie Henry Bennon

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