Fisheries service: Coho almost gone

Mike A’Dair, Willits News
April 23, 2010

Only about 400 wild Coho salmon returned to North Coast streams to spawn in 2009, according to Maura Eagan Moody of the National Marine Fisheries Service North-Central California Recovery Team. That figure included the entire Central Coastal California region, which extends from Aptos Creek in Santa Cruz County to the mouth of the Matole River in northern Mendocino County.

Moody revealed the plight of the Coho at Tuesday’s board of supervisors meeting, during which National Marine Fisheries Service staff updated the board on the status of the its recovery plan for Central California Coast Coho Salmon.

The NMFS staff has been working on the Coho recovery plan for the past four years. Currently a draft of the plan is available for public comment. The comment period on the plan began March 17 and will end on May 17.

Coho populations continue to plummet, although the fish has been a listed species on the North Coast since 1996. It was listed as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act in October 1996, after the population was estimated at 5,000. Years of understaffed and underfunded federal efforts matched with underfunded, back-and-forth, start-and-stop policy shifts by the State of California have spawned a patchwork of poorly integrated regulations, and an underfunded array of habitat recovery and restoration projects, as well as a steady barrage of invitations to landowners to cooperate with the agencies to save the salmon.

As the fishes’ population continued to plummet, the federal Coho listing was upgraded to the more restrictive “endangered” status in 2005.

In March 2005, the Central Coast Coho salmon was also listed as “endangered” under California’s Endangered Species Act.

In spite of that listing, the state has yet to conduct a thorough inventory of Coho salmon populations; nor has it established a statewide monitoring system. Doing so would allow both the state and NMFS to obtain better data on the plight of the fish, and would show any trends in population recovery that might result from efforts to conserve the species.

Moody told supervisors Coho populations have declined from an estimated 350,000 statewide in the 1940s to 100,000 in the 1960s and 30,000 in the 1980s.

Within the Central California Coast Evolutionarily Significant Unit (ESU), populations have fallen from 56,000 in the 1960s to 18,000 in the 1980s to just 6,000 in the 1990s.

Currently, the number of returning spawners in the CCC ESU is listed as “fewer than 500.”

“We have moved from putting out a recovery plan, to putting out an extinction prevention plan,” Moody said. “Our aim now is to increase species survival at all life stages of the fish.”

Moody added she believes chances are good the plan will be successful. “With the Central California Coast, we have three things that are going for us,” she said. “First, we have no large dams in our region. Secondly, we are not proposing any wholesale changes to land and water use. And lastly, we are building on the social and economic infrastructure that already exists here in our coastal communities.

“We are building on the existing knowledge base already out there,” she said. “There are a lot of people out there who have done a lot, and who know a lot. We are going to need their knowledge and their continued involvement if we are going to bring the Coho back.”

Supervisor John Pinches grew irritated during a Power Point synopsis of Moody’s presentation. One of the presentation’s slides listed important threats to salmonid habitats, such as “alteration of stream flow and water temperatures,” “alteration of channel morphology,” and “passage barriers.” NMFS did not mention oceanic conditions.

“It’s ironic to me there is not one mention of what’s going on in the ocean,” Pinches said. “Why is there such a concerted effort not to talk about these huge foreign boats that are coming into our waters and taking all the fish? How can you ignore what I feel is the biggest threat to Coho salmon?”

“We are not aware that that is now an ongoing problem with fisheries,” Dick Butler, Santa Rosa office NMFS supervisor, replied. “We established a 200-mile limit in 1972 to address that problem, and I am not aware it is now a problem,”

He added he would inquire to see if foreign fishing fleets were cutting into Coho and other salmonid populations.

“We have a 2-mile limit, a 12-mile limit, and a 200-mile limit and we don’t even enforce it anymore,” Pinches shot back. “I think what you have here is a plan that’s going to end up being a plan without any fish.”

“We hear your comments and we will try to incorporate that into our plan,” Butler said.

Persons wishing to read the draft version of the NMFS Central California Coast Coho Recovery Plan may find online at swr.nmfs.noaa.gov/recovery/

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