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Nez Perce Tribe Brings Back
a Lost Salmon Run

by Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin, October 17, 2014

Once Extinct Coho Passing Lower Granite In Big Numbers

In 1994, the Nez Perce tribe began using eggs from coho salmon in the lower Columbia River to restore the Idaho coho, shown here by Zach Penney, a Nez Perce tribal member who once ran the tribe's coho program. (CRITFC photo) A 20-year Nez Perce Tribe effort to reintroduce coho salmon in the Snake River basin has shown steady progress, but this year is riding a particularly high wave as tens of thousands of the shiny fish are surging up the Columbia and Snake rivers on the way to the Clearwater River and tributaries.

Coho counts this year Lower Granite Dam fish ladders on the lower Snake River (15,503 through Thursday) are nearly eight times the 10-year average for that date (1,997) and more than triple the previous annual record count of 5,060 set in 2011.

The coho are providing fish to state and tribal fishers all along the way, and in the Clearwater River.

And their sheer abundance -- as compared to zero returns from the mid-1980s through most of the 1990s -- is allowing the Nez Perce to explore a new strategy in their reintroduction plan, the capture and transfer of adult spawners to streams that have not yet been touched by the program.

"We're kind of moving into phase II," Michael Bisbee Jr. said of transport activity that began Wednesday. Bisbee is the tribe's coho program production supervisor.

"It was all hands on deck," Bisbee said. To this point returns natural returns of adult coho to the Clearwater basin had been from hatchery fish released as juveniles, or from hatchery fish that returned to spawn in the wild and produce a next generation.

In past years and this year returning adult coho are collected at Dworshak National Fish Hatchery on the North Fork of the Clearwater, on Clear Creak at Kooskia National Fish Hatchery, and Lapwai Creek.

"We collected all of them last year" when a relative modest return, about 1,400 adult coho, reached the traps, Bisbee said. All of the spawners were needed as broodstock for the artificial production. As many as 2,000 can be used for broodstock in larger return years.

Coho returns have, for the most part, getting larger through time, with only three counts at Lower Granite below 2,000 from 2003-2014 with that high, at least until this year, of 5,060. Fish returns in excess of hatchery needs are allowed to move upstream to spawn naturally.

Counts have been taken at the dam since 1975 when its first three turbine units went into service. Lower Granite is the eighth dam, including four on the lower Columbia River and four on the lower Snake, that the coho pass on their way to the Clearwater River. It empties into the Snake just above the head of Lower Granite's reservoir.

Coho were declared functionally extinct in 1985 after counts at Lower Granite flat-lined at zero in the 1980s. Annual adult coho counts at Lower Granite from 1984-1996 registered zero 10 times with a total of 11 tallied combined in the three other years.

Coho salmon once returned to the Clearwater River Basin (tributary to the Snake River) in abundance and supported an important fall tribal fishery.

Earlier efforts to restore coho during the 1960s failed. Snake River coho were never listed under the Endangered Species Act. The Nez Perce Tribe's reintroduction program began in 1995 with hatchery coho releases into the Clearwater River. For the first time, coho returns are approaching the tribal goal of 14,000 adults returning annually to the Clearwater Basin.

"Reintroduction of coho is succeeding in the Clearwater Basin. The only reason the Nez Perce Tribe has been able to bring them back, and keep them here, is because of this essential Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Funding," said Silas Whitman, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe. "The returning coho are being harvested and spawning and part of our cultural connection to these fish has been reestablished."

The Nez Perce Tribe's coho program is the result of an agreement through U.S. v. Oregon where the Nez Perce Tribe used surplus coho eggs from the lower Columbia River to reintroduce the species. NOAA Fisheries' Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund and Mitchell Act Program have provided the Nez Perce Tribe's coho program with more than $5 million in funding since 2000.

With growing returns, the Nez Perce coho program has been able to shift away from lower Columbia eggs to broodstock totally of Clearwater local origin beginning in 2011. The program was started with the idea of developing a local source, which is theorized would produce fish more capable of making that long journey up the Columbia and Snake.

And considering the high Lower Granite count this year, the now localized stock seems to be responding.

Numerous things, including ocean conditions, likely helped.

"But we think that's one of the contributing factors," Bisbee said of the local origin fish.

Based on PIT-tag detections, it is estimated 37,000 Clearwater origin fish passed Bonneville this year, which was almost 20 percent of the total, Bisbee said.

After capture, returning adult coho to be used as broodstock are then spawned at Kooskia National Fish Hatchery. Approximately 300,000 juvenile coho are incubated, hatched, and reared at the Dworshak and Kooskia hatchery facilities.

Each year an additional 650,000 eyed Clearwater River coho eggs are transferred to Eagle Creek National Fish Hatchery in Oregon for incubation and early rearing. That process typically yields about 550,000 fish that are returned to Idaho for release into the Clearwater system.

Many of the returning Snake River coho are caught in tribal and other fisheries in the Columbia River and a Nez Perce tribal fishery in the mainstem Clearwater, North Fork of the Clearwater, Lapwai Creek and Clear Creek. Given the large return, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game this week approved a month-long coho sport fishery in the Clearwater.

Many fish too are finding a home in nature. Data collected from PIT (passive integrated transponder) tags in 2011 indicated that 15,000 Clearwater coho adults passed Bonneville Dam and more than 5,000 of them made it to Lower Granite. Tribal biologists counted over 200 coho redds in Clearwater tributaries that year.

Although most juvenile releases were to Lapwai and Clear Creeks on the reservation, natural production of coho salmon has been documented in Lolo Creek, Potlatch River, Catholic Creek, and in the North Fork Clearwater River (all tributaries to the Clearwater River), and also in the Tucannon River (a tributary to the Snake River), the tribe says.

The number of returning coho spawners has generally been increasing, though with some down years. All returns since the first program fish arrived have been much greater than the pre-program period.

This year there is enough fish for every purpose.

"In a year of great salmon returns this one stands out because it started from zero," said Barry Thom, deputy regional administrator of NOAA Fisheries. "Few places in the world can say they have brought back a lost salmon run, but the determined work of the Nez Perce Tribe has done exactly that. That work is benefiting many others."

The 2014 "upriver" coho run is strong elsewhere too. A total of 221,671 adult coho had been counted at the lower Columbia's Bonneville Dam through Tuesday, which is more than double the 10-year average through that date. The record coho count at Bonneville was 259,533 in 2001, according to data posted online by the Fish Passage Center. Bonneville, at river mile 146, is the lowermost hydro project in the Columbia-Snake system.

Nearly 92,000 coho had made to the fourth dam up the Columbia, McNary, by Tuesday. McNary is the last hydro project the fish pass before the Columbia's confluence with the Snake.

Of those coho at total of 10,371 had been accounted for through Tuesday at the lower Yakima River's Prosser Dam, a total that is more than five times the recent 10-year average, according to data posted on the University of Washington's Columbia River DART web site. Central Washington's Yakima is the first major tributary upstream to the Columbia upstream of its confluence with the Snake.

A bit farther up the Columbia, a total of 31,738 adult coho had been counted at Priest Rapids Dam this year as of Monday. The 10-year average coho count at Priest Rapids is 4,926.

Coho reintroduction and restoration similar to that done by the Nez Perce Tribe is being implemented by the Yakima Nation in the Wenatchee, Methow, and Yakima river basins. The Yakama Nation's Yakima River Coho Re-Introduction Study and its Wenatchee and Methow coho reintroduction program boast success, with results comparable to the Clearwater coho restoration.

Despite starting with out-of-basin hatchery stock, the Clearwater, Yakima, Wenatchee, and Methow rivers are seeing increasing returns of natural origin coho -- fish that are adapting to their new environment and establishing spawning populations in new habitat areas.

Related Sites:
Nez Perce Tribe's coho restoration program
NOAA's Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund

Nez Perce Tribe Brings Back a Lost Salmon Run
Columbia Basin Bulletin, October 17, 2014

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