Conservationists and fishermen filed a lawsuit Thursday to try to force the government to make decisions due last year on whether another West Coast salmon species should be declared endangered.
Postponement of the listing decisions, in one case 15 months late, is moving the West Coast coho closer to the brink of extinction in California, Oregon and Washington, a coalition of 24 groups said in the suit filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.
“It is time for the federal government to comply with the law and take action before coho are gone forever,” said Mike Sherwood, an attorney for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund.
A spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service said Thursday a decision is expected this summer on whether to propose protection of the fish under the Endangered Species Act.
Different proposals are anticipated for the six population sectors between the Canadian border and Monterey, Calif., NMFS spokesman Brian Gorman said.
So far, the biggest threats to the coho runs have been identified in California, where the vast majority of coho habitat still remaining is found on private land, he said.
The Snake River sockeye salmon and two varieties of Snake River chinook salmon already are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
“There is no doubt some of the runs are in real trouble but I don’t think we are going to see, in the short run, disastrous results from any delay,” Gorman said in a telephone interview Thursday from the agency’s regional headquarters in Seattle.
Gorman said the ruling was delayed because a series of population reviews have been combined into one. The listing proposals will vary for the six distinct populations, grouped as:
Puget Sound, Olympic Peninsula, Oregon Coast, Central California, Lower Columbia RiverSouthwest Washington and Northern CaliforniaSouthern Oregon.
“They will not all be the same,” Gorman said. “Further inland and farther south, the conditions of the fish become more perilous. The habitat is more degraded.
“In some cases we are talking returns in the order of hundreds where they were in the order of tens of thousands a generation ago. In one particular instance (in California) there are about 150 fish out a population earlier this century of 500,000,” he said.
Gary Smith, NMFS’ acting regional director when the population review was launched in 1993, said at the time over-harvesting, poor ocean survival, drought and habitat destruction from logging, agriculture and urban development all “have taken a heavy toll on coho salmon.”
Tryg Sletteland, a salmon specialist for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund in Seattle, said the delay in protection was sending coho populations plummeting further in all three states.
“Our coastal economies need the protection afforded by the Endangered Species Act today,” Sletteland said.
Diane Valantine of the Oregon Natural Resources Council said coho fishing brought the region $70 million a year during the 1970s.
The Columbia Basin once hosted coho runs of 1.2 million, but the fish are nearly extinct today, the groups said. In California, the coho numbered 500,000 in the 1940s, but only a few thousand remain today. In Oregon, coho numbered 1.4 million in the early 1900s, but fewer than 50,000 are left today.