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After 80 Years, Salmon Spawning in Upper Columbia River Again
A pilot project returned salmon to the region long blocked by dams. This year, researchers saw the first small signs of success. 01/21/2021 by Nathaniel Scharping

This winter, an Upper Columbia River icon returned home after an 80-year absence: spawning salmon.

Researchers found 36 redds, or salmon nests, from Columbia River salmon in ancestral spawning waters above Washington’s Grand Coulee Dam. The redds are the result of a pilot project relocating salmon to waters long blocked by hydroengineering projects. One day, thousands of salmon may spawn here, restoring a vital part of the area’s ecosystem and bringing back a way of life for indigenous tribes in the Columbia River Basin.

It’s a rare piece of good news for native salmon populations, which are continually threatened by dams and pollution. In many places, salmon cannot reach ancestral spawning grounds, disrupting population dynamics. And in others, the threat of toxic mine tailings and even harmful chemicals from tires imperil their health.

Though the returning salmon still face threats to their survival, proponents see it as a major step forward for the region. Instead of taking something away from the ecosystem, here humans are giving something back.

“I was shocked at first, then I was just overcome with complete joy,” by the discovery of the nests, said Crystal Conant, a Colville tribal member, as reported by the Vancouver newspaper The Columbian. “I don’t know that I have the right words to even explain the happiness and healing.” (Press, A., 2020)

Salmon Restoration Project Bears Fruit

For thousands of years, salmon swam far upstream in the Columbia River, pushing against the current to reach breeding areas hundreds of miles inland. That ended in 1941 with the completion of the Grand Coulee Dam. At the time, officials saw the project as necessary to provide electricity for factories ahead of World War II, as well as irrigation for nearby farmland in Washington state.

Grand Coulee Dam
Grand Coulee Dam, completed in 1941, remains one of the largest man-made structures on earth, containing over 12 million cubic yards of concrete. As it has no fish ladders, it had prevented salmon from spawning above it for 80 years.

But the massive dam also disrupted the course of a major river, created a massive body of water, Lake Roosevelt, and cut off some salmon populations from their breeding grounds. In 1940, during the last salmon run to reach above the dam, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation held what came to be called the “Ceremony of Tears.” At Kettle Falls, a place that had hosted salmon fishing by the tribes for generations, they commemorated the passing of the salmon — and a way of life. By the next year, those falls had disappeared, submerged by fast-rising waters from the dam’s blockade.

For decades, no salmon swam up from the Pacific Ocean to spawn there. But that may soon change. In 2019, researchers and members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation began releasing salmon from fish hatcheries above the dam, with the goal of assessing their survival. This August saw 100 fish imported to the Upper Columbia River and tagged with electronic transponders to track their movements. That effort paid off as researchers found spawning salmon above the dam in the Sanpoil River, a tributary of the Columbia, reports Northwest Public Broadcasting.

The salmon nests shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. After all, the fish had spawned here for thousands of years before being cut off. And feasibility studies in recent years indicated that the river and its tributaries still contained huge amounts of habitat suitable to salmon. A 2018 report found that nearly 75 percent of the area surveyed contained a habitat suitable for Sockeye salmon. Another report published in 2019 indicated that the region could support tens of thousands of King salmon (Upper Columbia United Tribes, 2019).

Yet, in another way, the salmon nests can be regarded as miraculous. Theories abound, but scientists don’t really understand how salmon know when and how to return to the spawning grounds of their birth. It is perhaps even more remarkable that the Columbia salmon can still recognize and use a long-untouched spawning site.

“As the program grows, we expect the number of adults and juveniles to increase into the thousands — perhaps tens of thousands,” the Upper Columbia United Tribes state on their website. (Read more: Meet Your Salmon.)

A Victory for Wild Salmon

A stable population of returning salmon isn’t likely to be seen for a number of years, however, the project could have multiple benefits. Local tribes will see an immediate benefit with the return of the salmon they share a spiritual connection with. And salmon are considered a “keystone species” in the Pacific Northwest, meaning they’re an important part of the ecosystem’s fabric (Hyatt K, Godbout L, 2000). After spawning and dying, for example, the salmon replenish nutrients in the streams they live in. The salmon are also caught by bears and taken into the woods, where they provide nutrients for trees and other organisms even beyond the water.

Reinvigorated salmon runs would also provide opportunities for sport fishing and recreation all along the Upper Columbia River, bringing tourism dollars to the area and providing a welcome economic boost.

Still, the pioneering salmon face threats to their survival. Invasive northern pike has encroached on traditional salmon territory in the 80 years since they last swam in the Columbia. The UCUT report lists the pike as one of the chief threats to native salmon, especially juvenile salmon (Upper Columbia United Tribes, 2019). The Colville Tribes Fish and Wildlife Department even runs a reward program for northern pike. If you catch an invasive pike and bring its head to the department, you’ll receive $10. Other species like smallmouth bass and walleye could also pose hazards to the salmon.

Adding fish ladders that go around the dams, or a “fish cannon” like this one, could help restore large-scale spawning to the Upper Columbia River

And there’s still the fact that multiple dams stand between homebound salmon and their breeding grounds. While newer dams downriver of the Grand Coulee Dam have incorporated devices like fish ladders to help salmon swim upstream, both the Grand Coulee and nearby Chief Joseph Dam have not. More drastic measures like floating fish collectors and the much-publicized “salmon cannon” that shoots fish up and over dams may be necessary to help the salmon return in the future.

But for now, scientists and tribal members are simply enjoying the good news. Salmon have returned to the Upper Columbia River after eight decades of absence. This time, we all hope they’ll be there to stay.

Sources:

Baldwin, Casey. Draft Technical Memo, Sockeye Salmon spawner abundance potential estimates in the Sanpoil River. 2018. https://ucut.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Baldwin-2018-Assessment-of-Sockeye-Spawning-Habitat-in-Sanpoil.pdf

Hyatt K, Godbout L. Volume Two. B.C. A Review of Salmon as Keystone Species and Their Utility as Critical Indicators of Regional Biodiversity and Ecosystem Integrity.  Proceedings of a Conference on the Biology and Management of Species and Habitats at Risk. 2000:520. Accessed January 14, 2021. http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/wld/documents/fr02hyatt2.pdf

Press A. First time in years, chinook salmon spawn in Columbia River. The Columbian. https://www.columbian.com/news/2020/dec/18/first-time-in-years-chinook-salmon-spawn-in-columbia-river/. Published December 18, 2020. Accessed January 19, 2021. 

Upper Columbia United Tribes. 2019. Fish Passage and Reintroduction Phase 1 Report: Investigations Upstream of Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee Dams. https://ucut.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Fish-Passage-and-Reintroduction-Phase-1-Report.pdf

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