JUDGE'S RULING ON COHO SALMON LEAVES QUESTIONS

September 21, 2001 12:00 am

By WILLIAM LUNDQUIST

Oregon coastal coho salmon may not be protected by the Endangered Species Act at the moment, but that does not mean Brookings will get a coho fishing season next year.

Russ Stauff, a fish biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in Gold Beach, said the decision of a federal judge that coho no longer be declared threatened under the act will not change how the state manages fish.

First, he said, the judges ruling affects only coho in the zone from the Sixes River north to the Columbia River.

Second, he said fish and wildlife ended the harvest of coho, except for fin-clipped hatchery fish in certain areas, in 1993. Coho were not listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act until 1997.

Everyone knows coho are very much in decline, said Stauff Wednesday. We wont change our harvest practices.

He said his department regulates the coho fishery by the depressed status of the stock. Stauff said when Oregon coastal coho migrate past Brookings it looks like a large population of fish.

When they split up farther north to spawn in individual rivers, however, the numbers in each river are still low.

Stauff said the Pacific Fishery Management Council would also not be likely to allow a coho harvest, though it could choose to allow some incidental impact on coho.

Our responsibility is to prevent species from going extinct, said Stauff. Coho are starting to show some recovery now. Maybe at some point in the future we could talk about fishing, but it will be a couple of years, minimum.

He said he is frustrated that with the outstanding abundance of chinook salmon available this year, people are still complaining because they are not allowed to catch coho.

Stauff also said the decision on coho handed down by the federal judge in Eugene probably wont survive an appeal if the judges record is any indication.

He said that judge has a history of ruling against anything that has to do with conservation.

In this case, said Stauff, the judge based his decision on the argument that hatchery fish are genetically indistinguishable from wild fish and should have been counted when coho were listed.

Genetics are not as advanced as people think, said Stauff. He said even if genetic tests dont show any differences between wild and hatchery fish, the tests measure only a few small parameters.

He said it would be like saying all cars with the same tire size are identical.

You wont find a single professional fish manager who will agree that wild and hatchery fish are the same, said Stauff. He said the only exceptions might be a few biologists who retired years ago.

Stauff said whether the National Marine Fisheries Service appeals the ruling or not would be based on political considerations. He felt some group would appeal, however, and the decision would be overturned.

Brian Gorman, with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle, called the judges ruling an unfortunate opinion, but said the service is still looking at what it needs to do to protect coho and other salmon.

He said the service was very surprised by the ruling and has not decided whether or not to appeal or take other action.

Gorman said the judges decision wont change harvest management, but rules on habitat and land use dont apply right now.

He reminded people that the only laws that dont apply now are the ones directly connected with the Endangered Species Act.

Brookings fisherman Jim Welter, salmon advisor to the Port of Brookings Harbor, felt the judges decision might be good for the fisheries service. He said many of its decisions havent had any basis.

It could give us a good shot at sorting a lot of things out, he said.

Welter acknowledged that the state will still manage coho. He felt coho dont really need protection, except for a weak generation that shows up once in every three-year cycle.

Beyond that, he said, there are lots of coho in the Brookings area, judging by the number caught and released during the chinook seasons.

He did not agree that hatchery and wild coho are the same. He said wild stocks declined in the 1980s when there was little food in the ocean and hatchery fish were released to compete with them.

Before that, he said, the average catch of coho off Brookings each year was more than 17,000.

With greatly improved ocean conditions, Welter would like to see some sort of coho fishery off Brookings next year.

Curry County Commissioner Lucie La Bont, a veteran of watershed and salmon restoration work, agreed with him.

She predicted a record year for coho next year, but said any harvest would be determined by the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

Brookings commercial fisherman Ralph Brown, a member of that council, told the Port Fisheries Committee Thursday, We dont know what the impact (of the decision) will be on fishing.

He said what the judge was telling the fisheries service was that it could not say wild and hatchery coho were genetically identical for some purposes, but not for others.

Port Manager Russ Crabtree said the judges decision may have produced a different political climate for fishing.

Can we improve our fishery with the judges ruling? he said.

He and Welter said that might mean reducing the July closure on chinook fishing that allows coho to move upstream to spawn. That could mean more chinook fishing days in July.

The big question, said Brown, will be how many coho return this year with the new ocean conditions.

He said a lot of coho are expected, and more of them may be wild fish than is expected.

Its a cause for excitement and concern at the same time, he said: excitement because of more coho, but concern because the councils abundance projections were wrong.

Port Fisheries Committee Vice Chairman Roger Thompson said fishermen ought to be able to buy a tag to keep a certain number of fin-clipped hatchery coho if they catch them in the ocean while fishing for chinook.

Port Commissioner Ken Byrtus thought that was a good idea.

Brown said there may be pressure from both north and south of the Klamath Management Zone to allow the catching of fin-clipped coho.

He said traditionally, though, chinook always dominated the fishery in the zone, which includes Brookings.

He said coho dominated north of Cape Blanco. He said Brookings recreational fishery has never depended on coho.