Umpqua Watersheds Blog

Guest Column, Restoration


Published September 10th, 2022 in Guest Column, Restoration

Stanley Petrowski By Stanley  Petrowski

Well, here we go again! As most of our faithful members know, Umpqua Watersheds – and a handful of sincerely committed members in particular – has been working for years to preserve the Spring Chinook population of the Pacific Northwest. Because we are passionate about this keystone species, especially the populations of the Umpqua Basin, we’ve done a tremendous amount of volunteer and contracted work to do all we can to keep this invaluable natural treasure alive and flourishing. Chinook are called King Salmon for no small reason.

Let me give you a little background on this project for the uninitiated.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), under the guidance of their department the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), is the federal agency responsible for maintaining healthy populations of native fish in our region. The NMFS has policies that dictate how it defines a “species” when evaluating Pacific salmon for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). They have divided salmon populations into distinct genetic groups known as Evolutionarily Significant Units (ESU). NMFS defines an ESU as being substantially reproductively isolated from other members of the species and representing an important component in the evolutionary legacy of the species. Furthermore, they have clarified that an ESU qualifies as a Distinct Population Segment (DPS) under the ESA (the smallest taxonomic division allowed under the Act). The NMFS considers the discreteness, significance, and conservation status of a given population segment (in relation to other members of the species) when deciding on DPS status.

Map of the Oregon Coast showing the location of the Oregon Coast ESU (dark blue) and the S. Oregon/N. California Coastal ESU (light green). Map created using and the “Salmon ESUs—west coast USA” dataset.

There is actually some sound science behind these complicated designations. Nevertheless, the distinctions between groups are often not clearly black and white. In this context, Chinook in the Umpqua basin is one of the last surviving sub-groups of the Oregon Coast ESU. Many of Oregon’s coastal rivers and streams, which once abounded with Chinook salmon no longer support spring Chinook fish runs. Needless to say, the Southern Oregon/Northern California ESU is also suffering a dire failure of its native Springer Chinook runs.

You’ll recall that some years back Umpqua Watersheds partnered with the Native Fish Society and the Center for Biological Diversity to petition the Federal agencies to list the Oregon Coast ESU spring Chinook run under the ESA. We did this not only because numbers were rapidly declining, but because the UC Davis animal genetics dept. discovered that a genetic mutation that separates fall Chinook from spring Chinook took place once in geologic time. Let me emphasize that once again. The gene mutation that distinguishes fall and spring Chinook is very, very rare as evidenced in the DNA of these salmon. If we lose these genetics due to extinction they are likely gone for thousands of years, if not forever. Until this discovery was made, NMFS managed the Springer Chinook as though the life history shift between fall and spring Chinook happens often. Ooops! The genetic analysis says, “not so”. Based on this new discovery, we submitted the petition for ESA protection on behalf of the Springers as a unique subspecies of Chinook.

After over a year of wrangling, NOAA decided that they weren’t going to acknowledge the Springers as an ESU. Very disappointing after years of work and data gathering to say the least. In the interim, the number of spring Chinook returning to spawn continues to decline. In the meantime, the California Dept of Fish and Game has acknowledged the native cultural and unique genetics of spring Chinook and has listed them under the California Endangered Species Act. Kudos to them.

This August, Umpqua Watersheds, The Native Fish Society, and the Center for Biological Diversity once again submitted a petition for ESA listing. This time the petition includes protections for the Southern Oregon/Northern California ESU, and the Oregon Coast ESU, with special attention paid by Dr. Rich Nawa to the Klamath spring Chinook runs. Umpqua Watersheds has just received notice from NOAA/NMFS that our petition has been accepted for a 90-day review. This is a positive step forward. It’s the first hurdle in the long process of gaining needed protections for animals under threat of extinction.

Image courtesy of the USFWS

This time we have submitted the petition based on aspects of the ESA that declare species and subpopulations of species can be listed under this law. Rather than debate whether spring Chinook should be defined as a unique subspecies we asked that spring Chinook be listed as a unique population of Chinook. It really is technical jargon debated by scientists, agencies, and commercial interests with political and social ramifications. Nothing is ever easy when it comes to this stuff.

In the meantime, this iconic treasured fish is on the brink. The South Umpqua run is in serious danger. It’s all about the web of life and King Salmon is a critical food component for that tenuous web on many diverse levels. Orcas, seals, bears, eagles, and a host of other living creatures (including humans) have depended on this specific fish throughout history and it needs to be protected. Your support for Umpqua Watersheds will help keep this important issue in the limelight, and a focus of agency attention as it should be.












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