Yakama Nation works on sockeye reintroduction

Priest Rapids Dam, Washington (AP) July 2012

In its fourth year of a program to reintroduce sockeye salmon to the Yakima River Basin, the Yakama Nation plans to wrap up the process of collecting thousands of adult fish for release in Lake Cle Elum on the east slope of the Cascades.

Tribal fisheries workers collected 8,500 sockeye at Priest Rapids Dam on the Columbia River and another 500 fish later on. A thousand fish are expected to be captured, bringing the total number of sockeye captured in 2012 to 10,000.

The fish will be released into Lake Cle Elum, where they will spawn this fall. The eventual goal is to have a self-sustaining run of sockeye available for tribal fishermen and residents of the Yakima Valley.

Also known as the “blueback,” sockeye salmon are revered by Pacific Northwest tribes. Juvenile salmon migrate to the ocean for about two years, then return upriver to spend several months in a lake before spawning in mountain creeks and rivers. They were eradicated in central Washington rivers when the rivers were dammed, barring fish passage.

“We have a lot of tribal fishermen who fish the Yakima River,” Brian Saluskin, Cle Elum fish passage biologist for the Yakama Nation, told the Yakima Herald-Republic for a story.

“This is an excellent opportunity for our people to go close to home to catch sockeye with a net,” he said. “This is how we used to do it. We’d like everyone to benefit from the sockeye return.”

The tribe captured 1,000 fish in 2009 and 4,100 fish last year. The sockeye come from one of two fish runs: Lake Wenatchee and Lake Ossoyous in British Columbia.

The total sockeye run in the Columbia River could reach 600,000 fish this year.

Next summer represents a major milestone for the program. That is when the first adults initially planted in Lake Cle Elum in 2009 are expected to return to the Yakima River to start the life cycle all over again.

In addition to sockeye, the Yakama Nation has been working to restore coho salmon and summer chinook to the basin.

Saluskin said sockeye is an important salmon species to native people because it is the last to return to spawn.

“Our people will dry the sockeye, crush the meat into a powder and mix it with berries and other foods. It is an excellent source of protein,” he said.

The public can watch sockeye spawn in the lake’s tributaries this fall. The fish are likely to stand out with their distinctive bluish-green body color and reddish heads. The fish are not intended to be caught, and fishermen face steep fines for catching them.