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Restoring the Lower Snake River

Abundant food in the ocean and new cross-border cooperation to benefit fish have led to a blockbuster wild sockeye run on the Columbia River.

sockeye-stream2August 2, 2014

By Lynda V. Mapes

BREWSTER, OKANOGAN COUNTY — Good luck in ocean conditions for the past several years is stoking a bonanza fishing season for Pacific salmon.

But even in this spectacular year, with record-breaking returns of sockeye and chinook predicted to the Fraser and Columbia rivers, one run stands alone: Okanagan sockeye, storming the Columbia in astonishing, wriggling, wild abundance.

From the brink of extinction in 1994, the comeback of this small but mighty fish is the result in part of a unique cross-border collaboration among Indian tribes, dam operators and U.S. and Canadian fish managers.

Together, with quiet, nerdy, behind-the-scenes persistence, they created something that sounds so dull — a Web-based computer model for water management. But it’s helped them keep the right amount of water in the rivers for the fish at the times they need it. And it has been so wildly effective, it has spawned something even more rare than sockeye used to be on the Columbia: success.

“We are so habituated and so programmed for failure and for grim, gritty news,” said Will Stelle, Northwest regional director of the National Marine Fisheries Service. “We are just not prepared to embrace success.”

But the results are demonstrable: monster increases in out-migrating juvenile sockeye, from about 300,000 fish before the implementation of the water management program in 2004, to more than 8 million in 2010.

The adults from that class of juvenile fish are booming back now, shattering records. More than 600,000 sockeye are predicted to cross over Bonneville Dam this summer — the most since counting began in 1938.

The computer model helps managers operating Canadian dams avoid scouring salmon eggs out of their nursery gravel when water is released. They also are better able to maintain enough water and flow in the system so that salmon eggs don’t freeze or dry out. They can even time the release of fresh, cold, oxygenated water to help juveniles and adults survive in late-summer heat.

Investments in better dam passage and court-ordered spills of water on the main-stem Columbia have helped boost all species in the river. But the success of the Okanogan River sockeye is a victory in particular for wild salmon: more than 85 percent of the standout Okanogan run this season are wild fish.

“That is the interesting thing, we don’t have a hatchery, we aren’t doing anything but helping them thrive in their natural environment,” said Meaghan Vibbert, spokeswoman for the Douglas County Public Utility District (PUD), which operates Wells Dam, the last dam of nine in the Columbia that Okanagan sockeye must pass in their epic migration from the Pacific. Then they turn up the Okanogan River and cross one more dam and a gantlet of flood-control structures to reach their mountain-lake spawning habitat in Canada.

The Fish and Water Management Tool, which cost the PUD about $2 million to develop and $215,000 a year to implement, also has helped managers to avoid flooding and balance competing water needs on the river, said Tom Kahler, biologist for Douglas County PUD.

“It’s not only the fish people that love this. The water managers do, too. They would never go back,” Kahler said. “This takes care of recreational issues, flood control, fish issues; everybody’s happy.”
Feast days for tribes

“Sockeye!” yells Mary Friedlander, as the Dreamcatcher crew nets a silvery torrent of fish.
Colville, Kalispel and Spokane tribal members joined with Friedlander, from the Upper Nicola Band, on a purse seiner for a collaborative, selective fishing trip near the mouth of the Okanogan River on the Columbia last month.

Sleek, fast, all muscle and the most streamlined salmon on the Columbia, the silvery sockeye had not yet morphed to their distinctive hook-jawed, green-headed, scarlet spawning regalia.

As the net was winched up, the spotted back of a big wild chinook broke the surface amid swirling sockeye, and a crew member gently lifted it out, then put it back in the river. But the sockeye — those were for keeping, and for sharing.

Free distribution was set for each tribal community later that day. At Kalispel, fish would be given house to house for elders, said David Bluff of the Kalispel Tribe. “They love it.”

Jesse Marchand, a Colville tribal member, piloted the boat as a fat sun rose. “I have been fishing my whole life, ever since I could walk or cast a pole,” he said. “It’s traditional, it keeps our families fed, we just grew up into it. We are born into it, really. And it’s better and better every year.”

And before wildfires struck Eastern Washington, devastating Pateros, shutting down power in the Methow Valley and closing critical highway access across the mountains, the sockeye action meant sold-out motel rooms and ringing cash registers.

On weekends, as many as 300 sport boats were working the fish stacked at the mouth of the Okanogan, with the numbers of fishermen expected to build.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife upped the legal catch limit to eight salmon, including six sockeye per fisherman, bounty unimaginable when the sockeye run was cratering not that long ago.
Only 1,662 sockeye crossed Bonneville Dam in 1994. The feds mulled an Endangered Species Act listing.

But this summer, before the fires, the fishery was drawing anglers from around the region: a high-school guidance counselor from Whidbey Island, an English teacher from Wenatchee, a retiree from Ephrata, all lined up in the pre-dawn dark to get their boat in the water on the Brewster boat launch for the morning bite.

“We were here Saturday and there must have been 250 boats, it was like I-5,” said Jack Breedlove, of Whidbey Island. “People were running into each other. But there should be plenty of fish for everybody. It’s just fun. And there is nothing better than a fresh sockeye.”

New optimism

The new water-management regime is expected to help sustain big runs even when ocean conditions turn less favorable.

No one anticipates a return to the scarcity of the past, because now sockeye have more of what they need to survive: water.

So successful are the Okanagan sockeye that they now comprise more than 80 percent of all sockeye on the Columbia, eclipsing the Wenatchee River run, which used to comprise 43 percent of the population but by comparison today is a minor contributor. Redfish Lake sockeye, kept alive with a life-support captive brood program and hatchery in Idaho, are the third, and by far the smallest sockeye run in the Columbia/Snake river system.

The Douglas County PUD had started out with conventional recovery methods, relying on a hatchery that, despite high hopes, failed to build up populations of out-migrating juvenile sockeye, as required by a 1990 court settlement.

It was the Okanagan Native Alliance, with eight member tribal communities including the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, that got the breakthrough going, with an invitation to Canadian fisheries officials to work together with them and dam managers to help the run.

“There has been a lot of going to court, and that was an option, but the bottom line has been to take that collaborative approach to restoration, and the leadership, that is what enabled restoration to happen,” said Howie Wright, fisheries program manager for the Native Alliance.

With so many fish back, Wright expects a whole suite of wildlife: bears, fishers, eagles and more, as salmon come back home. “We will need to be more bear aware as we do our (fish) counts,” Wright said. “It’s a nice problem to have.”

Said Kim Hyatt, an ecologist at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, who helped develop the computer model: “If you give them a chance, wild salmon are more resilient than we think they are. It matters hugely, it provides hope that in the face of industrial, agricultural and human development, it is possible to restore wild salmon. It is not a hopeless task.”

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