Coho salmon are anadromous fish that are born and live in fresh water as juveniles and then migrate to the ocean as adults before returning to their natal streams to spawn. The historical range of coho salmon on the West Coast includes coastal rivers and streams from Alaska to Northern California. In California, the naturally spawned adult coho salmon population has been reduced to approximately one percent of its historic size, which was approximately 200,000 to 500,000 in the 1940s.
The coho salmon is joining the marbled murrelet and the northern spotted owl as a grim reminder of the ongoing destruction of our coastal forest ecosystem. Activists are uniting across the Pacific Northwest to protect and restore the forest habitat which once supported magnificent runs of salmon. One hundred years of managing strictly for resource extraction has failed the coho. This failure to protect salmon habitat has been an economic disaster. As recently as the 1970s, California’s coho fishery produced over $70 million a year in direct income. Since 1994, the commercial fishing seasons have been completely shut down.
Coho are dependent on cool, clear, sustained flows and the stable structural elements of streams in old-growth forests. More than 106 native Pacific salmon stocks are now extinct, and 214 more are at risk of extinction. The causes for the decline in coastal coho population include degradation of habitat due to loss of stream-side vegetation, filling of wetlands, decline in water quality of small streams, adverse competition from hatchery-grown coho salmon, and inadequate regulatory mechanisms.
After considerable effort and litigation by EPIC and dozens of other conservation groups, the Northern California/Southern Oregon coho salmon population has finally been listed as ‘threatened’ under the Endangered Species Act. Unfortunately, the listing does not guarantee meaningful protection of the remaining coho salmon, or their habitat, will occur, and more pressure from active citizens and groups like EPIC will be needed if the coho are to recover from the brink of extinction.
One of the most contemporary issues that EPIC is dealing with is the impact on water resources from industrial cannabis agriculture. Our organization has been involved with a number of public education initiatives that are designed to help communities on the North Coast support coho in getting what they need most: cold, clean abundant water.