Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, May 23, 2023

Contact:

Jeff Miller, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 499-9185, jmiller@biologicaldiversity.org
Michael Morrison, Pacific Rivers, (707) 845-2585, info@pacificrivers.org

Federal Protection Sought for Washington Coast Spring Chinook Salmon

PORTLAND, Ore.— The Center for Biological Diversity and Pacific Rivers filed a petition today to protect Washington coast spring-run Chinook salmon under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The safeguards would apply to salmon in the Chehalis, Quinault, Queets, Hoh, and Quillayute river basins on the west coast of the Olympic Peninsula. Spring-run Chinook, who are distinct from fall-run salmon, return in the spring from the ocean to freshwater rivers, staying for many months in deep pools until fall to spawn.

“Spring-run Chinook are truly king salmon, magnificent fish prized for their size and taste and impressive for their arduous migrations into upper river reaches,” said Jeff Miller, a senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “But early returning salmon are in trouble all along the West Coast, and it’s clear they require protection under the Endangered Species Act to stop their slide toward extinction.”

Washington coast spring Chinook have declined significantly and are now at a fraction of their historical abundance, with an average of only 3,200 adult spawning fish returning annually to Washington coast rivers. Remaining spring Chinook runs are threatened by habitat degradation due to logging and roads, water diversions, and migration barriers that block suitable spawning habitat and prevent upstream and downstream migration. They’re also threatened by existing dams and a proposed new dam in the upper Chehalis River, harvest in ocean commercial fisheries and climate change.

“It’s clear that spring Chinook salmon, treasures of the Pacific Northwest, are in serious trouble in many of their home rivers,” said Pacific Rivers Board Chair Mike Morrison. “Spring-run salmon numbers on Washington’s west coast have declined steeply over decades and are now perilously low. We did not take the filing of this petition lightly, and carefully considered the facts and science before making the decision to seek legal protections.”

Spring-run Chinook have unique habitat requirements for migration, spawning, juvenile rearing and adult life in the ocean. Suitable spawning habitat is in mainstem rivers and tributaries and requires cold water, cool resting pools, clean spawning gravels, and optimal levels of dissolved oxygen, water velocity and turbidity.

Deep cold-water pools are essential to spring-run fish survival because of their early entrance to freshwater and dependence on cold water through the heat of summer. Adult Chinook migrate upstream in a stressed condition and rely only on stored energy to complete their journey, leaving them highly susceptible to additional environmental stressors.

Several Washington coast hatcheries propagate fall-run and spring-run salmon, and hatchery-raised salmon are released or stray into every major river basin on the Washington coast. Hatchery fish can harm wild spring Chinook by competing with them for food, preying on them and transmitting disease. They also interbreed, producing hybrid spring-run and fall-run chinook, often called summer-run fish. Hybrid salmon are not fit for long-term survival in natural habitats and are likely contributing to the disappearance of spring Chinook.

Background

The Chehalis River basin historically supported an estimated 27,000 spring-run Chinook, but adult spawning returns from 2011-2020 averaged just 1,600 fish. Over the past decade, the Hoh River basin averaged around 1,000 spring-run, the Queets River basin around 500, and the Quinault River basin only around 100 fish.

Early return salmon and steelhead in Oregon and California are also imperiled, leading to Endangered Species Act listing petitions for populations in the Upper Klamath-Trinity Rivers, Southern Oregon/Northern California Coast, and Oregon Coast.

In 2021 the California Fish and Game Commission unanimously voted to list Upper Klamath-Trinity spring-run Chinook under the state Endangered Species Act. In January 2023 the National Marine Fisheries Service determined that Oregon Coast and Southern Oregon/Northern California Coast Chinook salmon populations may warrant Endangered Species Act protection.

Traditional ecological knowledge acquired by the peoples who are indigenous to the Olympic Peninsula over thousands of years made distinctions and identified differences between spring-run and fall-run Chinook salmon. Recent scientific studies show that spring-run fish are genetically distinct from the more abundant fall-run Chinook. The evolution of early returning fish occurred in both salmon and steelhead millions of years ago; this difference in spawning-run timing is highly unlikely to occur again if these distinct populations are lost.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Pacific Rivers uses science, policy and law to protect and restore the watershed ecosystems of the West to ensure river health, biodiversity and clean water for present and future generations.

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