May 06, 2001
|By Matthew Fordahl
The Associated Press
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California wildlife regulators took a major step Thursday toward putting the silver salmon north of San Francisco Bay on the state's endangered species list, but stopped short of ordering an immediate listing.
The unanimous action by the state Fish and Game Commission makes the silver salmon a candidate for listing and triggers a yearlong review of its status.
Commissioners also adopted regulations that essentially maintain the status quo for 120 days for timber companies and landowners who would be most affected by the protection of the fish.
Had they not adopted the regulations, the fish would have received immediate protection that would have outlawed the taking of any fish in the area.
"It's disappointing there won't be an immediate change in how operations are conducted," said Kathy Bailey of the Sierra Club. "However, it looks like the board is serious about trying to do something."
A dramatic decline in the population of coho prompted the calls last year for the state to list the species as endangered. But critics said such action would spawn unnecessary bureaucracy to protect the fish the federal government already considers threatened.
Commissioners listened to five hours of testimony on the petition to list the coho.
Mark Rentz, vice president and counsel of the California Forestry Association, told the board too little was known about the coho's population trends to act on the petition. He also said biologists were at odds over how many of the fish exist.
But Larry Week, chief of the Department of Fish and Game's Native Anadromous Fish and Watershed Branch, said although exact numbers are not known, the population has clearly been declining dramatically over the last 50 years.
"We believe there has been an overall, significant population decline," he said.
Tom Weseloh, who submitted the original petition on behalf of an environmental coalition, agreed.
"This is not a population that has hit a low yet stable population (plateau). It is disappearing as we speak."
Coho salmon south of San Francisco Bay have been considered endangered by the state since late 1995. The federal government has considered them threatened in the Central Valley since 1996 and in Northern California since 1997.
Department staff members estimated that the number of naturally spawned salmon returning to California waters had dropped by 1993 to 1 percent of levels in the 1950s.
Staff members say that in the 1940s and 1950s some 500,000 native coho were returning to California. Today they're seeing only 5,000 return.
If the salmon are added to the list next year, the species' well-being would have to be considered whenever the state reviews proposals that could affect its habitat.
That includes water diversions, timber harvests, gravel mining and other land or water uses, officials said. A listing also could prompt more studies and habitat restoration or protection programs.
Commercial and sportfishermen are not affected. They have been forbidden from taking the fish for the last five years.
Critics say the action by the state would not offer significant protection, but would make life more difficult for landowners in northern coastal California.
"It would involve yet another layer of bureaucracy that would have to be dealt with to address exactly measures we take to protect the species in these streams," said Steve Horner, a forester for Barnum Timber Co. "It puts on a whole layer of documentation that has to be done."
Naturalists argue the federal protection has not resulted in a population rebound. Some blamed a lack of enforcement that can be corrected with a state designation.
The Salmon and Steelhead Recovery Coalition -- composed of 10 environmental groups including the Sierra Club -- petitioned for the state endangered designation in July. The Department of Fish and Game took four months before making its recommendation to accept the petition earlier this year.
The group fears the coho faces extinction because its breeding ground is being fragmented and damaged by human activities in and around cold gravel-bottomed streams.
Coho salmon eggs are particularly sensitive to changes in water temperature and the conditions of the stream beds, which has made their reproduction all the more difficult as humans encroach on their habitat.