By Kent Gray

Triplicate staff writer

A recent decision to study the health of coho salmon could spell both good and bad news for Del Norte County.

A unanimous action by the state Fish and Game Commission yesterday has made coho a candidate for listing as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. It has been listed as threatened since 1994.

If an endangered listing becomes reality after the proposed year-long study, it could mean a rebound of coho, which can eventually lead to commercial harvesting again.

But new habitat-protection restrictions could hamper land developers and the logging and farming industries.

It would have a significant impact on the North Coast, said Duane Reichlin, general manager of Hambro Forest Products. This certainly isnt going to help anything. My question would be how much it would affect the people we get our raw materials from.

The reaction of Del Norte County Supervisor Chuck Blackburn is more of a wait-and-see attitude.

My only concern is that they dont blanket the area with restrictions, Blackburn said. The Smith River, and some other (rivers), are not historically coho habitats. It would be frustrating to have this impact your projects needlessly.

The Sierra Clubs report on coho salmon claims the fishing industry has suffered over the years due to the decline.

During the 1970s, coastal communities in the Pacific Northwest received between $60 and $70 million per year from the coho commercial fishery. Today, that number is essentially zero. A moratorium on coho has crippled the commercial fishing industry in California and Oregon for more than 10 years, according to the report.

Some local fishermen concurred with that sentiment yesterday, adding that coho have some inherent problems.

Its a real delicate fish. You look at coho too hard and it will bleed to death, said commercial fisherman Terry Groat of the vessel Hapi-Sea. Just from hooking them, if the hook goes in too deep, they can easily bleed to death before you get them back into the water.

Although commercial harvesting of coho has been banned in local waters since 1994, Groat and fellow fisherman Tom Patterson agreed that over-fishing was not the main culprit in the cohos declining numbers.

A lot of things have happened to cause the problem, and its not just the condition of the rivers and streams, said Patterson. When bass was introduced to the West Coast, it had a major effect on the coho fry, too.

Groat said it was common for him to hook 500 to 600 coho in a run back in the 1970s.

That was the last few good years of it, he said.

A recent federal court decision tilted in favor of protecting coho last Tuesday when it ordered the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to stop diverting water from the upper Klamath for irrigation purposes until recommendations from biologists could be studied.

Weve got to do something, Patterson said. With the drought conditions, the water cutbacks for running power plants and agriculture ... its time we do something for the salmon.