New plan lays framework for recovering threatened coho salmon

Fall 2014

Watersheds throughout southern Oregon and northern California once supported thriving runs of coho salmon. From Oregon’s Elk River to California’s Mattole River, thousands of coho returned to spawn in the Rogue, Klamath, and Trinity rivers and numerous coastal basins.

Over the course of several decades, land use practices drastically changed the landscape and altered the once healthy habitat coho relied on. Today, riparian forest and freshwater habitats are a fraction of their historical size, and what remains is significantly degraded. The effects of historical timber harvest and agriculture, together with migratory barriers, hatchery operations, fisheries, and mining practices, contributed to the decline of coho salmon. In 2005, NOAA Fisheries listed Southern Oregon/Northern California Coast (SONCC) coho salmon as a “threatened” species under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).

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Photo of adult coho salmon courtesy Thomas Dunkiln

A concerted regional effort to recover coho culminated in NOAA Fisheries’ adoption of the ESA Recovery Plan for Southern Oregon/Northern California Coast Coho Salmon this month. This recovery plan is the product of a multi-year, collaborative process that included tribes, federal, state, and local governments, industry, environmental groups, and the public. The plan integrates recovery planning efforts in both California and Oregon, specifically the State of California’s 2005 strategy to recover coho salmon, and the 2010 report on threats facing the species prepared by an expert panel of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The federal plan serves as a framework to recover the species’ 40 populations across California and Oregon. It provides an informed, strategic, and voluntary approach that is based on the best available science and meets the standards of the ESA. Perhaps one of the plan’s greatest contributions is that it helps to organize on-the-ground action across a very broad geography – two states, 13 counties, and some 13 million acres of land.

So what must be done to recover coho salmon? The plan is based on the premise that ecological conditions must improve and human-induced threats must be reduced. The plan identifies strategies for each life stage of coho salmon – from their time as juveniles in freshwater habitat, through their maturation in marine waters, and their return to natal spawning beds.

The plan calls for restoring riparian forest conditions by improving land use practices; restoring floodplains and channel structure by increasing the amount of large wood in streams, re-establishing off-channel habitats, and reconfiguring dikes and levees; improving stream flows by changing the timing or volume of water releases and reducing diversions; restoring passage for coho by renovating dams, culverts, and other barriers; and restoring estuarine habitat, among a suite of additional actions.

Implementing these actions will provide substantial benefits to local communities. Habitat restoration, for example, creates jobs at a level comparable to traditional infrastructure investments, such as road and water projects. Restored habitat also improves water supplies, reduces property damage from flooding, and limits risks associated with high severity fire, among other recreational and cultural benefits. As we look to the future, restored coho runs opens the potential for fisheries we haven’t seen in decades. As coho returns improve, fisheries revenues will too.

Completing this plan is a strategic step in the recovery of coho salmon, but it is just the beginning. This plan provides a path forward, one that is based on sound science, and it is up to all of us – federal, state, tribal, and local partners – to implement the plan and fulfill its goals. NOAA Fisheries looks forward to working with current and new partners to recover coho and restore the benefits that healthy and abundant coho runs will provide to local communities throughout southern Oregon and northern California.

LEARN MORE about coho salmon recovery in southern Oregon and northern California

VIEW the recovery plan

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Home page photo of juvenile coho salmon: John McMillan