Coho Salmon in Idaho:
by Roger Philiips
A historic fishing season for coho salmon opened Friday on the Clearwater River, giving anglers a unique chance to catch an "extinct" fish.
It's a fascinating story in Idaho's effort to save and restore salmon, but in this case, the Nez Perce tribe pulled it off.
"I give the tribe huge credit for being persistent and picking up this coho program and making it successful," Idaho Fish and Game director Virgil Moore said.
Dams built in the early 1900s blocked fish passage into the Clearwater River Basin, and the coho runs in the Snake River dwindled as more dams were added. Between 1984 and 1990, just 12 adult coho crossed Lower Granite Dam about 25 miles downstream from Lewiston, according to fish count records at the dam.
From 1991 to 1996, none returned, and the run was considered extinct.
NEZ PERCE TRIBE GOES TO WORK
Taking coho eggs from hatcheries in the lower Columbia River - and against the wishes of Idaho state officials - the tribe started a hatchery program for coho on the Clearwater River.
It wasn't that Idaho didn't want coho, Moore said. Idaho Fish and Game was concerned about the tribe introducing diseases into the river via eggs imported from the lower Columbia River.
The tribe ignored the state and went ahead with its coho restoration program by raising young coho in its hatcheries and releasing them into the Clearwater to migrate to the ocean and hopefully return as adults.
The tribe's first adults - 84 coho - returned in 1997, followed by just 10 the next year. The tribe spawned those returning adults and supplemented them with more eggs from the lower Columbia.
The run steadily grew, and adult returns hit the hundreds between 2000 and 2002. In 2003, 1,135 adults made it past Lower Granite Dam.
Becky Johnson, division director for the tribe's hatchery program, said returning adults were spawned and supplemented with eggs from the Columbia. The goal was to get enough adults returning to the Clearwater that the tribe could stop importing eggs.
That happened five years ago, she said, and the tribe is now releasing 800,000 to 850,000 young coho annually to migrate. It plans to increase that by a half-million.
Annual adult returns steadily crept up. Returning adults ranged from 1,135 to 5,060 between 2003 and 2013.
A RETURN OF FISHING SEASON
This year, the return exploded to 15,000 fish - and counting - allowing the state to open a sport fishing season, with the tribe's blessing.
It's Idaho's first sport fishing season specifically for ocean-going coho (landlocked coho can be found in some Idaho lakes and reservoirs). The season runs through Nov. 16.
"The tribe feels the success of the program speaks for itself, and after a 40- to 50-year void, is happy to see people be able to catch cuhlii (coho salmon) in the Clearwater River," said Silas C. Whitman, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee. "The returning coho are being harvested and spawning, and part of our cultural connection to these fish has been re-established."
Tribal officials said despite the state's "initial opposition" to the restoration program, they appreciate the state's acknowledgement of its success.
"Just as when Lewis and Clark arrived in the Northwest, the tribe continues to work to preserve and protect its resources, but it also shares in the bounty of those resources," Whitman said.
Coho restoration has happened remarkably fast in salmon terms, going from extinction to a harvestable surplus in 18 years.
Ironically, extinction likely sped the process. Snake River coho were never listed under the Endangered Species Act, which freed the tribe from the sometimes-burdensome federal requirements.
"It's been able to move faster," Moore said. "(The tribe) pushed the envelope."
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