Regaining Some of What Has Been Lost
Beginning in 2012 (I know, that seems like a long time ago), the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) began its process of developing the latest version of the Oregon Coastal Multi-species Conservation and Management Plan. It took two years to come to the final iteration of “the Plan”. Stakeholders meetings were held across the State. Input was received from many venues. Tribes, anglers, fishing guides, commercial interests, scientists, scholars and conservationists all chimed in to submit their point of view. Policies were reviewed and the viability of fish populations was vetted over and again.
A Voice for the Voiceless
We at Umpqua Watersheds were deeply involved in the process. The targets of our interest had a wide range. Of first consideration was the status of currently listed species throughout the Oregon Coastal ESU (Evolutionary Significant Unit). Long discussions were had regarding the metrics by which a population of fish should be considered viable. A ball park estimate of the current standard consists of the likelihood of particular fish species or fish run lasting 100 years. I know 100 years sounds like a long time. When I consider the fact that I am seventy years old and that my mother-in-law recently passed to the other side at the age of 94 years and four months, a century isn’t that far out of reach after all.
Consistently we pushed for the recognition that historical fish count numbers reaching as far back as the European pre-contact era are the only real true standards by which the health of our fish populations should be judged. Our view did not gain much traction. If that standard were used, the miserable conditions of our fish populations would be too well known. The argument against it was that historical numbers would never be attainable since the environment has been too much altered.
That view is cynical. It seems to me that we are not being careful enough. The complexity of the formula used to set this standard is being created in a historical vacuum. We’re not setting the bar of the goal high enough for the comfort of many conservationists.
The South Umpqua Premature Migrating Chinook-Our Springers
Among many other targets we were particularly concerned about was our own Umpqua Basin South Umpqua Spring Chinook run. I have been shouting the alarm bells regarding this most precious fish population for many years. When “The Plan” was being developed, the upper South Umpqua run was considered in the “Green” or healthy category.
This idea was based on the premise that the Spring Chinook run of the Coastal ESU was “viable”. A significant problem also is the fact that all Chinook are lumped into one specie category. A Chinook is a Chinook regardless of its migration cycle was the fundamental premise guiding decision making. Fall and spring Chinook were gathered into one specie category. With the support of other conservationists and against much resistance a review was made of the South Umpqua Spring Chinook run numbers. We persisted and managed to persuade the State to make a change. The Springers were shifted to the “Amber” category. That meant that they agency was concerned somewhat at the state of that particular fish population.
A History of Decline
Annual counts have been made of these fish for many years. Studies and surveys done in the 1930’s showed a fully seeded fish population. Come to the present and the average number of Chinook over summering throughout the entire upper south fork (many pools) is 177 fish. Let that sink in. An average of 177 Spring Chinook represented the total population in the entire south river fork. With the voice of the Cow Creek Umpqua Indians along with other voices (including much further wrangling), ODFW placed the Upper South Umpqua Spring Chinook in the “Red” category.
That meant that they could not be fished in the South Umpqua fork. It meant that this run was considered a matter of concern. Still, the springers could be fished for on the main stem of the river without a problem, which translated that some of these Spring Chinook could inadvertently be caught during the annual Chinook fishing season in the Umpqua.
ODFW wouldn’t budge. There would be too much push back from anglers, guides and businesses if the South Umpqua springers would be protected by the State by blocking Chinook fishing on the main stem of the Umpqua River too.
Strongholds of Limitation
The concern and struggle for the Upper South Umpqua “premature migrating” Chinook continues. Can you fathom losing these fish on your “watch”? I cannot. In the midst of the din of the world’s problems it’s easy to lose sight of the concerns most near us.
Another factor is our tendency to place the responsibility of change on those charged by us to watch on our behalf. This cultivates a sense of distance from the reality that we are people of place.
This is our river system. These are our fish. The agencies do not own them. (Continued on page 10) (Restoration, continued from page 4) They are charged to care for them on behalf of the public. They get paid to do this. When shortfalls occur and standards fail, it is our duty to rise to the occasion.
I will be the first to admit that the agencies are swamped with work. It is all the more reason for us to be vocal and active when we see something seriously overlooked. Don’t get me wrong. Many agency personnel I have worked with really do care. The scope of their task and limited budgets goes a long way to cripple them. Add to that the intransigence of archaic policies and the dimension of politics and we have a formula for a stagnant system.
Science and the Courts
Sometimes the forces working against the preservation of some critical component of our ecosystem just becomes too unwieldy to address by negotiation. That is the case with the Northern Spotted Owl and many other listed species. Or perhaps there just aren’t enough resources available to properly solve a problem of critical concern. In times like those, science and the courts become the only venue to compel the system to respond to the emergency.
This is relevant to the very precarious situation our premature migrating South Umpqua Spring Chinook are in. Last November I attended the annual Native Fish Society River Stewards retreat. We had a fantastic presentation from Tasha Thompson, a UC Davis salmon genetics grad student. Her talk on the genetic differences found in Fall and Spring Chinook populations filled me with fear, awe and hope. The stunning results of the research show that indeed the premature migrating Chinook are distinctly different. What makes them different from the Fall Chinook is a mutation that took place once, long ago, in geologic time scales. There are serious implications. Once the Springers die off, Chinook salmon are not likely to experience the change that secured this unique life history mechanism for survivability. The loss of this biodiversity would be tragic. The same is true for the South Umpqua Summer Steelhead and they have already been declared extinct!
Agencies to the Rescue! Not Quite
I know reputable scientists and biologists that have been saying for years what this study proved and yet the agencies refused to list the Springers under the Endangered Species Act (ESA.) The Karuk tribe of Northern California sought to have their imperiled Spring Chinook run protected under the ESA but was rejected by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Their petition was turned down on the basis that there wasn’t a distinction between Fall and Spring fish. As of late last summer the tribe is resubmitting their petition based on the new findings.
Who is Concerned About the Umpqua Spring Chinook Run?
With the long history of agency reticence to list various species as threatened or endangered I wonder what the outcome of our springers will be. The situation gets spookier since the current administration in Washington is doing all it can to undermine the Endangered Species Act and the NEPA process.
I intend to keep raising my voice for the Umpqua fish. As a proponent of restoration ecology, and Chair of the Restoration Committee at Umpqua Watersheds, I am asking all of those who love this exceptional majestic keystone specie — and this fragile fish run specifically, to join forces with us to make sure they are not lost forever. This fish run is a particular focus of the restoration committee. We have a strategy to move forward but we need boots on the ground and resources to implement it. Interested? Send me an email or visit us at our Restoration Committee meetings. You are needed.
The Story On Line
Below are a series of links that will give you the scope and scale of the science and its results.