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Upstream Swim for Salmon Species
Court rules coho are not threatened, for now.
Published: January 14, 2005
A federal judge declared this week that coho salmon have been illegally listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The decision, by Judge Michael Hogan, was hailed by the Pacific Legal Foundations as a victory - saying it reverses a policy that reduced the delivery of irrigation water to protect a species that was never threatened. 

At the same time the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermens’ Associations, the lead party supporting the listing of the coho, is also claiming itself a winner in the case. The group that represents commercial fishing families on the West Coast said the decision will have no real impact because, by this June, the federal government will re-list the coho.

The National Marine Fisheries Service had, in the late 1990s, done an assessment of the coho population in the rivers mentioned in the lawsuits. Based on those studies, the coho was listed as a threatened species. The flaw, according to PLF, was that the government only counted naturally spawned salmon and ignored hatchery-bred salmon. Judge Hogan agreed.

“This victory comes too late for the farmers who were pushed into bankruptcy and the businesses that were forced to close to protect fish that were never endangered,” said PLF attorney Russ brooks.

According to Brooks, the same judge had ruled in favor of PLF in a 1999 lawsuit over the same issue on the Oregon coast. In late 2002, PLF filed its Southern Klamath action, anticipating a similar decision. At the same time, environmental and industry groups sued over the Oregon Coast decision and the whole issue came to a legal standstill while the courts considered the objections.

But, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal didn’t resolve the issue until February 2004. “When they cut off the water, they did hundreds of millions of dollars of harm,” Brooks said, “not just to the Klamath River but also the Trinity in Northern California.”

The federation representing fishermen calls this statement a diversion from what they see as the real motivation. “The case was a water grab in the Klamath,” said Glen Spain, northwest regional director for PCFFA. “It overturned protections in the Klamath [River] so they could take more water out of the river.” Spain said large agricultural concerns had wanted increased water for irrigation – and that diverting water from the river would severely impact the coho. “The coho population in the Klamath is down to two percent of historic numbers,” he said.

But PLF asserts that organizations supporting the listing of coho were keeping issues tied up in litigation while farmers suffered. “Our streams and rivers area teeming with salmon, yet the Klamath community was practically destroyed because of environmental policies run amok,” Brooks said.

Even though Judge Hogan ruled the listing of coho salmon was in violation of the Endangered Species Act, the NMFS continues to review West Coast salmon listings – a count that will now include hatchery-bred coho.

Brooks says he is confident this will result in the formal de-listing of the coho and the return of irrigation waters. Spain, on the other hand, is expecting to see coho salmon make a return trip to the list of threatened species - meaning more water in rivers and less for irrigated lands.



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