In the most far-reaching decision in the history of the Endangered Species Act, the Clinton administration on Wednesday announced a proposal to declare coho salmon a threatened species in Northern California and Oregon.
For decades a cultural, economic and environmental icon in the Pacific Northwest, the wild fish is headed toward extinction and needs federal protection, government fisheries experts announced after a two-year review.
Recovery of the silver and blue fish is one of the most formidable environmental challenges facing the West Coast and could surpass the spotted owl in divisiveness over the Endangered Species Act.
The long-delayed decision by the National Marine Fisheries Service comes at a time when the new Republican-led Congress plans to overhaul the 22-year-old law and slash the funding of the federal agencies that enforce it.
“This is the most significant listing proposal in the history of the Endangered Species Act, and one look at a map will tell you why,” said William Stelle, the fishery service’s Northwest regional director. “The geographic scope of this listing is enormous.”
The designation would protect coho salmon along 700 miles of coastline, from the San Lorenzo River near Santa Cruz, Calif., north to the Columbia River, and in streams that flow more than 100 miles inland.
The federal agency, however, concluded that there is insufficient proof that coho in Washington state are endangered or threatened, although it promised another review within a year.
The proposal is extraordinary in that the bulk of the affected land is privately owned - 90 percent in California and half in Oregon - which raises the political stakes and difficulty of the recovery efforts.
The wild fish will be afforded no immediate protection under the law, because a year-long review including public hearings must be held before a final decision.
The Clinton administration sought to defuse the controversy by proposing a threatened status, rather than endangered. That allows the federal government to mold a conservation plan that gives more flexibility and control to landowners, local communities, state governors and American Indian tribes.
But many environmentalists are angry that the administration left off Washington’s coho and ignored compelling scientific evidence that the species should be declared endangered, not just threatened. They fear the consensus approach is too weak to safeguard the salmon and accused the federal agency of bowing to politicians in the three states.
“It appears that politics has over-ridden science in this process,” said Barbara Boyle, the Sierra Club’s regional director.
Facing a variety of man-made disturbances of their spawning grounds, many salmon populations throughout the West Coast have virtually disappeared, and some stocks are already extinct.
Wild coho has long been a symbol of natural abundance and rejuvenation in the West, and has great cultural significance to American Indians.
Coho spawn in freshwater streams, a resource frequently filled for development, diverted for hydropower generation and silted up by timber and agricultural operations. Such practices, rather than overfishing, are widely considered the major causes of the fishes’ decline.
The proposed listing is not expected to stop timber operations and other uses of the habitat. But it is likely to alter some logging practices and road building so that coastal streams are protected from sedimentation, temperature increases and loss of vegetation.
Unlike other wars over species that pit jobs against the environment, many of the Pacific coast’s jobs and revenues have already vanished with the salmon.
Earnings of the coho commercial fishing industry, which reached $30 million per year in the 1970s, dwindled to zero in 1994 and 1995 because the fisheries in the continental United States have been closed indefinitely. Another $40 to $60 million per year has been lost in sport fishing revenue.
Most commercially sold fish now comes from either Alaska, Canada or overseas.
The salmon, in fact, may never receive the proposed protection, since Congress is debating its biggest overhaul of environmental regulations in two decades.
Congress has imposed a moratorium on new species listings in 1995, and is considering extending it indefinitely. Also, the budgets of all wildlife agencies have been targeted by the House appropriations committee.
The Clinton administration has shown a preference for declaring controversial species threatened, instead of endangered, when private land is at stake.
A declaration of threatened means a species cannot be harmed or harassed without federal approval, the same protection that applies under an endangered status. But it differs by allowing federal agencies to avoid inflicting the rigorous project-by-project reviews on landowners and instead form alliances with local communities to create conservation plans.