An Introduction to Salmon Recovery Planning Under the Endangered Species Act


The Endangered Species Act (ESA) requires NOAA Fisheries to develop and implement recovery plans for salmon and steelhead species listed under the Act. Recovery plans identify actions needed to restore threatened and endangered species to the point that they are again self-sustaining elements of their ecosystems and no longer need the protections of the ESA. Although recovery plans are guidance, not regulatory, documents, the ESA clearly envisions recovery plans as the central organizing tool for guiding and coordinating recovery efforts across a wide spectrum of federal, state, tribal, local, and private entities. Recovery planning is an opportunity to find common ground among diverse interests, obtain needed protection and restoration for salmon and their habitat, and secure the economic and cultural benefits of healthy watersheds and rivers. Recovery planning is a collaborative effort that draws on the collective knowledge, expertise, and actions of communities and partnerships.

Recovery goals are based on sound scientific data on the species' status and the threats they face. Biological goals describe viable salmonid populations, or populations of salmon and steelhead that are naturally self-sustaining over a 100-year period. Viable salmonid populations are defined in terms of four parameters—abundance, productivity, spatial structure, and diversity. These parameters provide a scientific framework for assessing the status of populations and species, determining the factors limiting survival, and devising actions needed to achieve recovery. Threats are the conditions that have contributed and/or are contributing to the species' risk. Threats will be examined by NOAA Fisheries at the time of delisting to ensure that they have been addressed and are not likely to reemerge upon delisting.

Approach to Recovery Planning & Implementation

NOAA Fisheries delineated eight recovery domains, or geographic recovery planning areas, for the salmon and steelhead populations listed under the ESA on the West Coast. The eight domains are: Puget Sound (which includes Hood Canal and Lake Ozette), Interior Columbia (which has three sub-domains of the Middle Columbia, Snake, and Upper Columbia), Willamette/Lower Columbia, Oregon Coast, Southern Oregon/Northern California Coast, North-Central California Coast, California Central Valley, and South-Central/Southern California Coast Within these domains, several management units may exist.

map of West Coast Region salmon recovery domainsRecovery Domains on the West Coast

NOAA Fisheries’ approach to recovery planning is rooted in local planning groups with firsthand knowledge of the species and its ecosystem. In each domain, the agency works with state, tribal, local, and other federal entities to develop planning forums that build on ongoing, locally led recovery efforts. NOAA Fisheries defines “management units” based on jurisdictional boundaries, as well as areas where local planning efforts are underway. In Washington State, NOAA Fisheries is working with state recovery boards to develop recovery plans. In Oregon, similar stakeholder and watershed groups are actively participating in recovery planning. The agency is also working hand-in-hand with the state of Idaho to facilitate tribal and local involvement in recovery planning and implementation. In California, NOAA Fisheries is working with co-managers and stakeholders, including water users, to develop and implement sound recovery plans for salmon and steelhead.

Teams of biologists and salmon experts, collectively known as technical recovery teams (TRTs), established the scientific foundation for recovery planning efforts. The TRTs are multi-disciplinary teams of experts chaired by NOAA Fisheries Science Center scientists. They were tasked with identifying independent populations, providing scientifically sound biological recovery criteria, analyzing alternative recovery strategies, and providing scientific review of draft recovery plans. Examples of scientific work to assist recovery implementation include:

Research, Monitoring, and Evaluation, & Adaptive Management

Implementation is a learning, iterative, and adaptive process. Comprehensive monitoring and evaluation is important for prioritizing and selecting the right projects in the right places. Recovery actions will adjust to on-the-ground information and local conditions/circumstances to ensure that precious dollars are focused on the greatest needs to achieve the greatest benefit.

In order to collaborate with local stakeholder groups, build on the good work already underway, and draw on the considerable expertise that exists within state and tribal governments, local jurisdictions, and communities, NOAA Fisheries has taken a decentralized, multi-jurisdictional approach to salmon recovery planning.


Salmon recovery is a shared responsibility that requires action at all levels of government and by all stakeholders. Partnerships among federal, state, local, and tribal entities, together with non-governmental and private organizations, are key to restoring healthy salmon runs and securing the economic and cultural benefits they provide. NOAA Fisheries believes that effective salmon recovery is implemented at the local level, but our staff will play key roles in the recovery process, including: providing scientific and policy support, providing funding as available, and working with our partners to improve regulatory mechanisms for salmon recovery. NOAA Fisheries is committed to working with our partners and stakeholders to restore salmon so we can all share the benefits of this common resource.