Yakamas reintroduce salmon in Yakima River Basin headwaters

Tucquala Lake, Washington (AP) 7-08

As staff members of the Yakama Nation Fisheries Program emptied nets full of young coho salmon into Tucquala Lake, they undid effects of over a century of dams barring migratory fish from the Yakima River Basin’s headwaters.

The tribal-sponsored experiment was returning around 300,000 coho salmon during late June in an effort to re-establish self-sustaining fish runs in the basin’s upper reaches, starting in the waters above Lake Cle Elum in the central Cascades.

Dams have kept fish from the headwaters for over 100 years, beginning with crude crib dams built for irrigation and later with five dams on lakes feeding the Yakima River. None of the five dams have fish passages.

Fish returning to spawn will be captured below Cle Elum Dam and trucked around it.

“This is both culturally and spiritually important to the nation,” said Dave Fast, senior research scientist for the Yakama Fisheries Program. Restoring historical fish runs would also bring back tribal fishing opportunities. 


Re-establishing sockeye salmon is the ultimate goal, said Mark Johnston, a tribal fisheries biologist. Next year, 250,000 young sockeye will be scattered across Lake Cle Elum.

With the tribe’s support, the Bureau of Reclamation introduced a test batch of 10,000 coho into Lake Cle Elum in 2005. A small group returned from the ocean to spawn.

The headwaters provide excellent habitat for migratory fish, but the ecosystem is essentially sterile, according to Johnston. Without fish returning to spawn and then die, the headwaters lack key marine biological material to feed the small organisms that young salmon eat. To jump-start the process, coho carcasses will be scattered across tributaries above Lake Cle Elum this year.

Successfully re-establishing fish runs could help native species, such as raccoons, cougars and bald eagles, recover, Johnston said.

“All of those animals will benefit from the salmon coming back, because it’s a high-protein paste which helps them stock up for the winter,” he said.

Fish are an important indicator of an ecosystem’s health. “When they’re not around, something’s wrong,” Johnston said.

The experiment is the first time full-scale fish reintroduction has been attempted while maintaining dams, which hold irrigation water for the region’s agriculture.

“It has always been either dams or fish. Maybe it doesn’t have to be all or none,” Johnston said.