Record Columbia River Sockeye Run
by Quinton Smith, special to The Oregonian
CASCADE LOCKS -- Joe Bass shelters himself from the wind whipping through the parking lot of the Char Burger restaurant. He's selling whole sockeye and chinook salmon from a big cooler at his feet, along with a steady line of chatter for potential buyers as he competes with two other fish sellers.
A record run of sockeye in the Columbia River means a brisk start to sales for the 18-year-old Yakama tribe member who spends summers here selling fish caught by his family.
"People prefer chinook for some reason," Bass says. "But I tell them that sockeye is here only one time a year and that there is way more sockeye this year." So many fish that a hoop net fisher on a scaffold can catch 100 sockeye a day, Bass says.
Two miles east of the Char Burger, Duane Banks tends 16 troughs inside the Oxbow Fish Hatchery. The troughs contain 95,000 fingerling of endangered Redfish Lake sockeye from central Idaho. It is a run so precarious that 20 years ago, no fish returned to the lake.
"It's rewarding when you see the numbers come back in Idaho," Banks says, "knowing that they were almost extinct."
Sockeye are the little salmon that could.
At 3-5 pounds, sockeye are the smallest salmon, yet they rival spring chinook for taste. They are abundant in Alaska and Canada, and Puget Sound has several large runs. The Columbia River is the farthest south of its range. Of the Columbia's six salmon runs, it travels the fastest and farthest and reaches the highest elevation.
Fishery managers have difficulty estimating the Columbia sockeye run and this year predicted the count at Bonneville Dam would be 125,000 fish. But 30,374 sockeye passed through June 23, the most in a single day since the dam was built in 1938. Two days later the estimate for the year doubled, to 250,000 sockeye. On Saturday, the run reached 329,579 fish.
Before dams were built on the Columbia and Snake rivers, sockeye run estimates reached 3 million fish. The run almost died after the dams came in and then, with much help, started a comeback. Most of the sockeye that now race up the Columbia head to spawning lakes in northern Washington and British Columbia. Of those, only 1,000 of the endangered sockeye raised in Cascade Locks and two other hatcheries are expected to get past Lower Granite Dam on the Snake.
Experts point to many reasons for increasing runs, among them improvements to dams and hatchery practices, better tributary habitat and increased smolt releases. But the primary reasons, scientists say, are court-ordered increased spills from dams in the spring, when smolt migrate downstream, and improved conditions in the ocean where salmon spend two to four years growing up.
"If the spill is good and ocean conditions right, there are good results," says Chris Kern, an Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife biologist who monitors the Columbia River.
This year the return of spring chinook was 40 percent higher than the 10-year average, and the runs of summer chinook and steelhead under way are expected to be higher than normal.
A similarly big return of Columbia River sockeye in 2008 drew the attention of fisheries scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle. They launched a study up and down the Columbia to determine which factors most greatly affected sockeye survival and return.
Although John Ferguson, director of NOAA's fish ecology division, says the study was not as definitive as scientists would have liked, it found that conditions in the Pacific off the coasts of Oregon, Washington and Vancouver Island were the biggest factor in the strength of the run.
For 12 years NOAA has assessed Pacific Ocean conditions and sampled salmon from Newport to Canada. In 2007 and 2008 -- when this year's sockeye first reached the Pacific -- the ocean was "by far and away the best we've seen it," Ferguson says.
That trend continues. In May, NOAA sampled the ocean again, catching a lot of young salmon but especially more sockeye. "We caught more juvenile sockeye this year than we ever had," Ferguson says, which bodes well for Columbia River sockeye returns the next two years.
"Certainly this will be the biggest run back to the 1950s," Ferguson says.
The bulk of the Columbia River's sockeye salmon originate in Lake Wenatchee and in the Okanogan River basin of northern Washington and southern British Columbia. The construction of Grand Coulee Dam in 1941 and Chief Joseph Dam in 1958 blocked sockeye returns to the upper Columbia River.
The only strain of sockeye to be listed by the federal government as endangered is in the Snake River, triggering efforts by the state of Idaho, Bonneville Power Administration, other fishery agencies and river users to save it.
To get to the Stanley basin and Redfish Lake in central Idaho, sockeye swim from sea level more than 900 miles up the Columbia, Snake and Salmon rivers and past eight dams to 6,500 feet. Last year 1,219 sockeye reached Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River, far exceeding the 10-year average return of 81 fish. No fish made it to the dam in 1990, the year before the run was listed as endangered.
"When you only get four to five fish coming back, it's pretty scary," says Duane Banks, manager of Oregon's Oxbow Hatchery.
Oxbow is part of the Idaho effort to keep the run from extinction. It gets fertilized eggs from captured Idaho sockeye, raises them for a year to 6-8 inches and then trucks the fish to Idaho. That state has released 200,000 smolts each year but is working with the BPA and other interests to increase production up to 500,000 or 1 million.
In contrast, an estimated 8 million wild smolts migrate out of Osoyoos Lake on the Okanogan River.
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs