PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) – Over the last century, Oregon let salmon runs go extinct in some parts of the state and then erased them from people’s knowledge, according to environmental groups behind a new petition to list spring Chinook as endangered.
Spring Chinook evolved millions of years ago to grow bigger and swim further upriver than Chinook that make the same journey in the fall. That genetic distinction may be key to securing a listing under the Endangered Species Act. Historically, managers lumped spring and fall Chinook together, which meant spring Chinook runs disappeared unnoticed, according to the three environmental groups that filed Tuesday’s petition.
“The history of spring Chinook is slowly being erased from the Oregon coast as if these fish had never existed,” said Mark Sherwood, executive director of the Native Fish Society.
A 2017 study showing the genetic evolution of spring Chinook could help the struggling fish join the 13 other species of Oregon salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act, if Tuesday’s petition is successful.
Researchers at the University of California, Davis found that spring Chinook developed a genetic mutation as long as 15 million years ago to ride the last of the spring floods upriver before they are sexually mature. Once they reach their headwater destination, they wait in deep pools of cold water, developing reproductive abilities and living off their fat stores until it’s time to mate in the fall.
But Oregon has mostly managed spring Chinook along with fall Chinook. And unlike “springers,” fall Chinook have remained relatively abundant. That has meant that spring Chinook continued to decline, and in some places like the Siuslaw, Coos and Salmon rivers, they disappeared completely.
To prepare their petition, the environmental groups combed through histories of canneries along Oregon’s coast. They found a historical record of spring Chinook returning to almost every coastal stream. But over the last century, state management plans talk about spring Chinook in fewer and fewer rivers, according to the petition.
“As runs were impacted by harvest or habitat degradation, the state would sort of erase that population from people’s knowledge,” Sherwood said. “They’re not talked about like ‘runs we’re trying to reestablish now,’ they’re just sort of gone. Gone from history.”
Jamie Anthony, fish program monitoring coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, said the agency has recognized the differences between spring and fall Chinook in the Umpqua River since at least 2005. And even in places where genetic differences weren’t clear, Anthony said ODFW reduced harvest rates for spring Chinook in order to foster diversity among runs. He said the agency acknowledged that spring runs in the Coos and Siuslaw rivers are extinct, but that management plans since 2005 have not mentioned spring Chinook in the Salmon River.
“Broadly across the northwest in general, it’s often said that there were fish returning throughout the year,” Anthony said. “What’s difficult to do is to know exactly what that change was. Cannery records can certainly provide a window, but they can also be difficult to interpret.”
The Karuk Tribe used the new genetic research in 2017 to call for spring Chinook in the Klamath River to be listed. The National Marine Fisheries Service found that a listing may be warranted and is conducting a status review. Sherwood said he expects the research will soon be used to call for the listing of spring Chinook born in the rivers and streams of Washington.
During their years away from their natal rivers, Oregon’s spring Chinook journey north through the Puget Sound, up to Alaska and out to the Bering Sea. They feed endangered Southern Resident killer whales, commercial fishermen and many other marine animals.
“Chinook are called king salmon, but spring Chinook are the king of kings,” Sherwood said. “They’re the strongest, the biggest and the fattiest. Yet it’s been sort of an erasing of a species from the land. Which is exactly what the Endangered Species Act exists to prevent.”
The Native Fish Society was joined in the petition by the Center for Biological Diversity and Umpqua Watersheds.