PORTLAND, Ore.— The Center for Biological Diversity, Native Fish Society and Umpqua Watersheds filed a notice today of their intent to sue the National Marine Fisheries Service to force it to decide whether Oregon coast spring-run Chinook salmon warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. The decision has been overdue since last September.
Spring Chinook once thrived in all of Oregon’s coastal watersheds but have disappeared from many rivers due to logging, roads, and other sources of habitat degradation like dams and poorly run hatcheries. Spring-run Chinook no longer exist in the Siuslaw, Coos or Salmon rivers, and only small runs remain in the Tillamook, Nestucca, Siletz, Alsea and Coquille rivers.
While the North Umpqua River supports the only remaining large spring-run Chinook population along the Oregon coast, by contrast, the South Umpqua River population is severely depleted, with only 51 adult springers returning in 2019.
“We can’t stand idly by and allow our beloved springers to be another casualty of science denial,” said Meg Townsend, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The science is clear that genetically distinct, spring-run Oregon coast Chinook desperately need protection now. The loss of these magical, early-returning salmon would be truly devastating.”
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 trout millions of years ago. This difference in spawning-run timing is highly unlikely to occur again if these distinct populations are lost.
Four salmon hatcheries operating on the Oregon coast artificially breed spring-run salmon. The goal of these hatcheries is to produce fish for anglers, but in recent years there have not been enough returning adult salmon to produce the next generation.
Additionally, hatcheries not aimed at helping rebuild fish stocks may be jeopardizing wild spring Chinook by creating competition between farmed and wild fish and unintentionally producing hybrid spring-run and fall-run chinook. Hybrid salmon are not fit for long-term survival in natural habitats and are likely contributing to the disappearance of spring chinook.
"Spring Chinook salmon are iconic, treasured fish and yet, they have nearly disappeared from our coastal landscape. Timely and science-based federal leadership is critical for reviving them to abundance,” said Mark Sherwood, executive director of the Native Fish Society. “We need National Marine Fisheries Service to act now and protect Oregon Coastal Spring Chinook under the Endangered Species Act.”
"Protection of wild spring chinook, shown by scientific evidence to be distinct from fall-run salmon is critical because of the declining number of returning spawners over the last several years," said Kasey Hovik, executive director of Umpqua Watersheds. "This protection is warranted because of threats from logging, overfishing, and summer low streamflows."
The conservation groups filed a listing petition with the Fisheries Service in September 2019, and a decision was due in September 2020. If the agency doesn’t make its required finding, the groups plan to file a lawsuit over its violation of the Endangered Species Act.