Pacific Salmon: Ecology and Management of Western Alaska’s Populations

A Perspective on Coho Salmon Management in Oregon: Learning from Experience and Expecting Surprises

Jim Martin


Abstract.—Described in this paper are my experiences with, and reflections on, managing salmon for 30 years with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Specifically, I will focus on lessons learned from Oregon’s struggle to effectively manage coho salmon Oncorhynchus kisutch in Oregon’s coastal streams. In the 1980s–1990s, salmon managers discovered that the fishery management strategies were based on false assumptions regarding the capability of freshwater habitat to produce smolts, the constancy of ocean productivity, and the role of hatchery fish in coastal ecosystems. As managers, we misinterpreted spawning stock assessment data and stock-recruitment relationships, an error which, when combined with a pressing need to harvest returning hatchery fish, led to overly aggressive harvest strategies that drove the less productive stocks of Oregon’s wild coastal coho salmon toward extinction. A progressive research program helped identify these errors and the new information generated through this research program helped fishery managers re-formulate management strategies to meet changing threats to coho salmon. As a result, federal listing of Oregon’s coastal coho salmon stocks under the Endangered Species Act was avoided. The successful conservation and harvest of coho salmon stocks in the 1970s led to complacency among fishery managers, which then subtly shifted into arrogance over time. This shift caused managers to be slow to recognize the changes occurring in the ecosystem. Managers must not become complacent or arrogant in their abilities to manage; they must look for potential surprises and must be ready to respond to future challenges and threats to salmon. Three major lessons from were learned from the author’s experiences with Oregon’s coastal coho salmon. Lesson number one—be careful about the use of stock recruitment relationships in management. Meeting the minimum escapement goals does not mean that harvesting the rest of the population is a wise or sustainable practice. Lesson number two—carefully consider planting locations for hatchery fish, and how stocking locations and practices will change the distribution of fishing effort and affect fishing mortality of wild fish and confuse assessment indices. Lesson number three—challenge your assumptions under which you are managing. Conduct the research required to test your assumptions, and change management strategies when necessary. The two big future challenges facing coho salmon are the increasing size of human populations and predicted warming of the climate along Oregon’s coast. The lessons learned over the past 30 years should be applied to future challenges to ensure the sustainability of salmon.