Commission moves forward to list coho

Issue Date: February 11, 2004
Christine Souza

Following a day-long verbal tug-of-war between environmental groups and landowners last week, the California Fish and Game Commission approved the Department of Fish and Game's Coho Salmon Recovery Strategy at a special session.

The commission also moved forward with the process of listing coho salmon as a threatened or endangered species, an action expected to put more regulations on Northern California farmers and ranchers.

"We are highly disappointed in this action by the commission," said Pam Giacomini, California Farm Bureau Federation director of natural resources. "We believe that the recovery strategy as presented to the commission is regulatory in nature and it does not meet the wishes of the commission when it began this process back in August 2002."

The final coho recovery strategy, which began development in November 2003 using information from the Statewide Coho Salmon Recovery Team and the Shasta-Scott Recovery Team, contains more than 760 pages. It was produced by the California Department of Fish and Game to serve as a guide for the process of recovering coho salmon on California's North Coast and Central Coast.

The commission established the 21-member coho recovery team to focus on the species' entire range, and the 13-member local Shasta-Scott recovery team to focus on water-use and land-use associated with agricultural practices in the Shasta and Scott river valleys in Siskiyou County. As a result, the teams provided numerous recommendations for the department to consider in the final development of the strategy to recover coho. The fate of this final document was the topic of discussion by the commission at last week's meeting held in Sacramento.

"The bottom line is that everything comes back to flow. The environmental movement and the Department (of Fish and Game), have tried to tie all of this recovery back to a lack of water for the fish," said Siskiyou County Farm Bureau member Don Howell, a member of the Shasta-Scott Recovery Team and of the Siskiyou Resource Conservation District. "There is only one place to get the water and that is from the adjudicated rights of landowners who are using the water to sustain themselves to create a livelihood. That is why there is such a fury over this whole thing."

The four commissioners listened to public comments for the majority of the meeting. Many who provided testimony were interested in three suggested timber management alternatives. Department of Fish and Game recommended that the commissioners adopt timber alternative "C," which would guide how forestry operations are managed throughout the range of coho. Most environmentalists stressed they would like the commission to select timber alternative "A," which calls for an increase in the requirements under the forest practice rules for all timber operations and additional restrictions for issuance of incidental take permits. By the end of the day, the commission approved the Fish and Game-recommended timber alternative "C" and added portions of alternative "B" to be adopted in the recovery plan and for use in guiding the development of a policy for issuance of incidental take permits.

The public comment period concluded with information submitted by Farm Bureau, landowners, timber operators and others who oppose the plan. During her testimony, Giacomini explained that under the law (Fish and Game Code Section 2114), the recovery strategy shall not be used as a regulatory document in any manner. The strategy as adopted, Giacomini said, clearly contains regulations and therefore does not comply with the law.

In addition, the department's status review, Giacomini said, lacks rigorous, qualitative and quantitative science about the coho salmon. A review of the fish's status commissioned by Farm Bureau and other organizations indicates that coho salmon populations have been recovering. The report by fisheries biologist Charles Hanson of Walnut Creek says recent spawning surveys show that adult coho salmon abundance may be increasing. During his testimony, he stressed the importance of collecting information about the species, something landowners and others have spent time and money doing to recover the species.

"Since 2002, there have been a number of ongoing proactive actions within these watersheds that have focused both on habitat enhancement and improvement specifically designed to improve habitat quality and availability for coho and other species as well as ongoing monitoring programs within watersheds to provide continuing information," Hanson said. "That whole program has benefited by the expenditure of substantial grants and other funds that have been used and applied in the development and implementation of a restoration plan that represents a cooperative effort between the state, local communities and private individuals."

While volunteers have made a significant effort to gather information and data on the species, the commission's initial action in August 2002 to find that coho warrant listing does not meet the statutorily required information under the California Endangered Species Act, Giacomini said.

"There is not a single piece of scientific evidence included by the department in the recovery plan that gives current population or abundance numbers for coho salmon, or that gives any number that would comprise a viable population," Giacomini said. "The department does not give us a target for when recovery is met, nor does it meet the statutory criteria necessary to demonstrate that coho are at risk of extinction."

In July 2000, the Salmon and Steelhead Recovery Coalition petitioned the California Fish and Game Commission to list the coho salmon north of San Francisco as an endangered species under the California Endangered Species Act. In response, the department issued a report to the commission describing the status of coho salmon north of San Francisco, recommending that the coho from San Francisco north to Punta Gorda be listed as endangered and that the coho from Punta Gorda north to the Oregon border be listed as threatened. In August 2002, the commission found that coho salmon warranted listing. The coho is already listed as a "threatened" speciesunder the federal Endangered Species Act.

Over the next two weeks, the department will write the regulations to add coho to the list of threatened and endangered species. Regulations then must be published in the California Register Notice. That publishing date begins a 45-day comment period. At the end of the comment period, the commission must once again take public testimony and vote to actually adopt the regulation.

"Farm Bureau will continue to build the case and present to the commission our belief that coho do not warrant listing," Giacomini said. "This belief is confirmed by testimony presented to the commissioners from Marin Municipal Water District. In their statement, they referred to continuous monitoring they have done over the past nine years. The counts of coho this year are the highest they have been in nine years."

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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