Migratory Fish Show Big
by John Trumbo
This year may be remembered for the big comeback of the Columbia River's migratory fish.
Coho salmon and steelhead had record returns. Sockeye successfully spawned at Lake Cle Elum for the first time in a century and improvements in fish habitat and to fish passage at dams helped improve survival for species that migrate to the ocean.
"It was a pretty good year for the fishery," said Paul Lumley, executive director of the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission in Portland.
"We're happy with the numbers of fish coming back, but still concerned about the number of wild fish," he said.
The number of coho that found their way upstream to the middle and upper Columbia River this year was a milestone for a species that almost was nonexistent in upper river tributaries two decades ago.
Only 12 adult coho passed Rock Island Dam near Wenatchee in 1999, while nearly 20,000 swam past the fish counters this year.
It was the same at McNary Dam on the Columbia at Umatilla -- up from 4,736 coho a decade ago to 33,385 this year.
The increase pleases Tom Scribner, the Yakama Nation's project leader, who said the best part is it also shows an expanding number of fish that spawn naturally. Biologists are counting on those fish to build self-sustaining wild stocks.
Coho had virtually vanished from the upper reaches of the river after more than 100 years of irrigation diversions and development. There weren't enough fish left by the 1980s to even justify listing coho under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
Fish biologists decided in 1990 to begin using hatchery-bred fish to rebuild the runs.
The pioneering effort, a joint project of Bonneville Power Administration, the Chelan County and Grant County Public Utility districts and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, aimed to entice fish reared in the lower Columbia River to swim hundreds of miles upstream.
"There was a question whether it was really possible to do this so far above the dams," said project manager Roy Beaty in a statement Wednesday.
This year's coho run, which saw just over 10,000 fish make it into the Yakima River, shows the success of years of effort, said Todd Newsome, coho restoration biologist for the Yakima/Klickitat Fisheries Project.
"We are really excited because it has about 1,800 wild fish," Newsome said.
About 1,500 adult fish reached the upper Yakima above Roza Dam and about 2,000 entered the Naches River, Newsome said.
Newsome said credit goes to fishery managers and water managers being more willing than ever to cooperate, with special operations at Roza Dam to make the dam more fish-friendly and keeping more water in the Yakima River to allow easier fish migration.
The key is getting salmon down river and out to the ocean, he said.
This year's coho return was largely determined by ocean conditions, Newsome said.
"What we do (to manage river conditions) is worth about 30 percent," he said.
Having 10,000 fish return in the Yakima is good, but this was an ideal year -- a perfect combination of all factors, Newsome noted.
"When we can get 3,000 to 7,000 fish in a bad year, then we will have done our job," he said.
The return of spawning coho to the upper Columbia is but one of the successful fish stories of 2009.
The year also was strong for chinook salmon, Lumley said. And 2010 is expected to be even better.
"The spring 2010 chinook upper river forecast is 470,000. We've never had runs that high above Bonneville Dam," Lumley said. "That's huge. If it holds, it will be fantastic."
The good news reaches all the way to Lake Cle Elum.
Yakama Nation biologists reintroduced sockeye salmon there in mid-summer, hoping the newcomers would feel right at home.
Two months later, fish began spawning where no sockeye had been for 100 years.
Tribal biologists estimated 20 percent of 1,000 sockeye from the Wenatchee and Okanogan drainages, taken from behind Priest Rapids Dam and brought to Lake Cle Elum, were spawning.
"This is a huge step forward. The credit goes to the tribe's effort to have fish spawn naturally," Lumley said.
Sockeye returns this year in the Columbia River system hit 180,000 -- the most since 1956 -- and are predicted to reach about 125,000 next year, he noted.
Steelhead also came back in huge numbers, giving fishermen on the upper Columbia some of the best angling in decades.
This was also the first year to see fish improvements occur on the river under the auspices of the Columbia River Fish Accords, which call for a $1 billion investment over the next decade to help restore fish runs.
Newsome noted that the accords among tribes, states and water managers, including the Bonneville Power Administration, expedite availability of money for habitat improvement.
"There's a lot less red tape. Money is being put out faster because of the accords, so we see results faster," he said.
The BPA also reported that a federal assessment of the work done during the first year of the 2008 Biological Opinion on the Federal Columbia River Power System is largely good news.
It describes accomplishments for nearly 11,000 acres of newly protected and replanted habitat and more than 15,000 acre-feet of newly acquired water from river and stream flows.
The Bi-Op, as it is called, requires the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and BPA to work on protecting salmon.
The first-year assessment concludes progress is on track to meet science-driven targets to boost fish survival through the dams, according to a BPA statement.
The actions taken include installing a fish-friendly spillway weir at Lower Monumental Dam, establishing a protected intertidal wetlands as a salmonid nursery in the Columbia River estuary near Longview and planning to shift steelhead hatcheries to fish adapted to local streams.
See progress report at www.salmonrecovery.gov.
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