Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Friday, Feb. 17 @ 5:14 p.m.
Del Norte Supervisors Oppose Proposed Federal ESA Listing for Oregon, California Coast Chinook
A local fishing guide convinced Del Norte County supervisors to demand “actual factual science” to support the proposed listing of Oregon Coast and Southern Oregon-Northern California coast chinook salmon as endangered.
Mike Coopman, who has been a guide for 30 years and has worked with several local fishing organizations, asked the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to submit a letter opposing the proposed listing to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Coopman argued that the Native Fish Society’s petition would affect all chinook salmon from Cape Mendocino to the mouth of the Columbia River. He also asked supervisors to build coalitions with colleagues in neighboring counties and to “come in with a unified type of a response to this petition.”
“Every one of us will be affected on our daily life if this was to come through in this process,” Coopman said, adding that the Del Norte County Fish and Game Commission also opposed the proposed listing. “I would ask for you guys to request more study, more science — actual factual science — that would prove things. It’s very important and everybody in this room could be affected if this petition were accepted by National Marine Fisheries and NOAA.”
The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved adding the proposed listing to its 2023 legislative platform. Supervisors also asked staff to draft an opposition letter and bring it back to the Feb. 28 meeting for their approval.
Coopman said he had seen the petition on the federal registry about 30 days ago and estimated that the Board had about 30 to 45 days before the public comment period concluded.
In response to the Native Fish Society’s petition, which also included endorsements from the Center for Biological Diversity and Umpqua Watersheds, the National Marine Fisheries concluded last month that chinook salmon on the Northern California and Southern Oregon coasts may warrant protection Endangered Species Act protection.
Chinook salmon in Oregon and California have early and late-run variants. Spring-run chinook in Oregon and Northern California chronically suffer from low abundance and have specific habitat needs, according to a Jan. 11 news release from the Center for Biological Diversity.
The organization states that spring-run chinook were present in 11 river systems between Tillamook Bay and the Klamath River, including the Smith River. Populations on the Coos, Siuslaw and Salmon rivers have disappeared, the Center for Biological Diversity states.
The Center, Native Fish Society and Umpqua Watersheds submitted their petition to the National marine Fisheries Service in August 2022.
Coopman chairs the Rowdy Creek Fish Hatchery Board of Directors, is involved with the NorCal Guides and Sportsmans’ Association and works with the Del Norte County Fish and Game Commission. According to him, the county Fish and Game Commission considers him an expert in fish behavior.
Before his presentation on Tuesday, Coopman submitted a letter to the Board of Supervisors bringing up the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s recommendation in 2019 to list the Klamath River spring-run chinook as endangered within the state. The California Fish and Game Commission went against that recommendation, Coopman wrote.
On Tuesday, Coopman said he felt the Native Fish Society and the Center For Biological Diversity’s proposed federal listing under the ESA was a follow up to that attempted state listing from 2019.
However, Coopman said, one of the flaws is that the current proposal doesn’t include a distinction between spring-run chinook and fall-run chinook. He brought up the term evolutionary significant unit, or ESU, which identifies a population of organisms considered distinct for conservation purposes.
“We have the spring salmon, (which) we are looking to potentially get identified as its own evolutionary significant unit,” he said. “There is an argument within (California). Private scientists say yes there are (DNA) markers and the publicly-employed scientists say there aren’t.”
Coopman conceded that spring-run chinook are in trouble, but said the jury’s still out on fall-run chinook. Without specifying one from the other, he said, he felt the proposed ESA listing was premature.
“To me, there is a very clear difference between spring chinook and fall chinook. I see them almost every day,” he said. “I cannot put that DNA marker as a scientist, but they are very different, in my opinion, and I believe they should be treated as different. The State of California is doing so, and hopefully we can move forward with that and get that DNA difference.”
Rob Miller, chairman of the Del Norte County Fish and Game Commission, said Coopman brought his concerns to their meeting on Monday. Miller said the commission will also send an opposition letter to NOAA regarding the proposed listing.
“What seems to be the most important (thing) from Mike’s presentation is the fact that there needs to be science behind this process,” Miller told supervisors. “Specific and exact science behind it is exceedingly important for the economic and recreation viability for Del Norte County.”
District 3 Supervisor Chris Howard, who was a fisheries biologist in Del Norte County working on timberlands for about 17 years, said several factors, both in-stream and in the ocean, impact salmon runs. According to him, studies conducted in the Smith River have indicated that chinook salmon runs are more impacted by ocean conditions than river conditions.
“Those returns, unfortunately, have been low in some cases, but those low numbers of returns are what generate this kind of petition, and it’s an unfortunate catch-22,” he said. “We could be doing everything we can here as folks that oversee the landscape of the Smith River Watershed to protect it and yet what happens in the ocean are often things we can’t impact as a society. And this is one of those cases where the petitioners feel they’ve got to do something about it, yet there’s very little that can be done about it.”
District 5 Supervisor Dean Wilson equated the proposed listing with “bad science that’s pushing forward the removal of the Klamath dams.” That bad science has shuttered fish hatcheries originally dedicated to maintaining salmon runs on dammed rivers, he said.
“The effects of those closures over this long period of time have been significant and yet it never is included in any of the studies they have ever done,” Wilson said. “The impacts of what this may cause to us is definitely something we need to oppose. Until they can show that the science they are utilizing and the studies they are utilizing are justifiable, I support the letter going forward and the request that studies be done.”