Saturday, June 8, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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U.S. Declares Columbia Coho Extinct Species -- People, Not Dams, Ruined Wild Run

Federal officials yesterday sounded the death knell for the lower Columbia River wild coho, a fish that once ran in the hundreds of thousands up the river.

"It's sad," said Jim Lichatowitch, a biologist for Washington's Jamestown-Klallam Tribe and co-author of a study that says more than 200 West Coast anadromous fish runs may face extinction.

"We've lost something that may have existed in the Columbia River for a long, long time," he said.

The lower Columbia coho, one of five species the National Marine Fisheries Service considered nominating for endangered or threatened status under the Endangered Species Act, yesterday was declared extinct by the fisheries service.

The service announced that three other species merited nomination as "threatened," though it lumped Snake River spring and summer chinook runs together for purposes of protection.

Fall Snake River chinook also were declared candidates for "threatened" status, joining the Snake River sockeye, which was declared a candidate for endangered status in April.

The wild Columbia coho population once exceeded 600,000 fish annually, 400,000 of those in the lower Columbia, defined as the region below the Bonneville Dam, the first dam on the river.

But dams didn't kill the wild coho. Overharvesting, habitat destruction - primarily logging - and civilization in the Portland area did.

By the 1950s, fewer than 5 percent of the lower-river coho remained. In the 1960s, Oregon fisheries officials embarked on a hatchery program to augment the fish and also began to plant wild stock from other streams in lower Columbia tributaries.

That hatchery production, which often exceeded the historic 400,000 fish, resulted in fisheries agencies permitting harvest levels that helped wipe out the wild coho.

"Increased hatchery production, beginning in the 1960s, allowed harvest rates to remain high, and wild lower Columbia River coho salmon, already depressed in abundance, were not afforded an opportunity to recover," said the National Marine Fisheries Service's written decision.

Yesterday, officials said they could not find any fish that showed the genetic stamp of the original coho runs.

"Maybe it's a lesson we could learn that it is possible to lose something in using technology on it," Lichatowitch said.

The agency's announcement caught many by surprise - even utilities officials who said they weren't convinced there aren't any wild coho left.

"We're very puzzled about NMFS's proposed findings on the fall chinook and lower Columbia River coho runs," said Al Wright, director of the Pacific Northwest Utilities Conference Committee. Wright said the committee's experts thought there still were wild lower-river coho.

Fish advocates were surprised at the decision to list the fall Snake River chinook as threatened rather than endangered. The decision led to speculation that fisheries service Director Rollie Schmitten may have been pressured by Bush-administration officials in the Department of Commerce or the White House to lighten the recommendation.

"There was no pressure," Schmitten said. "We were able to present the biological findings exactly the way we found them."

The protections under each designation are similar, argued agency attorney Mike Bancroft, saying the main difference is that "threatened" status gives the service some discretion in allowing limited harvesting of fish.

Environmentalists also decried the decision to list the spring and summer chinook together, saying the service was setting a bad precedent by not recognizing the behavioral and habitat differences between the two.

But they were more concerned about the fact it could take at least a year to begin to protect the threatened runs. Fall chinook on the Snake River have dwindled to an estimated 78 fish returning last year, down from several years of 300 to 400 returns.

The service has up to a year to finally list the species and institute a recovery plan for it.

Such a recovery plan could result in less fishing, more water over the dams, less power and rate increases for Bonneville Power Administration customers of from 10 to 30 percent, according to preliminary estimates.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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