NEAR BRIDGEPORT, Wash. – Fish flew as Shelly Davis and Raynee Innes hustled to get 1,300 salmon packed on ice.
The women grabbed silvery sockeye and blue-backed chinook from coolers, tossing them into enormous plastic totes in the back of a pickup. Caught that morning in the Columbia River, the fish would be trucked 90 miles to Keller, Wash., and distributed that evening to members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.
Despite triple-digit heat, the fish-packing was a festive occasion. The women, employees of the tribes’ Fish and Wildlife office, bantered with tribal crew members who had netted the fish earlier in the day.
Salmon were once a staple for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, but in recent years, the 9,000-member tribes’ annual take has averaged only 1,800 fish. The day’s outstanding catch meant salmon for stocking tribal elders’ freezers, as well as fish for canning, smoking, drying and grilling.
Next spring, the Colville tribes will break ground on a $41 million hatchery to boost runs on the Upper Columbia. The Chief Joseph Hatchery will help the tribes retain their heritage as “Salmon People” by increasing the number of fish for subsistence and ceremonial use. The hatchery also will support non-native sport fishing in the nearby towns of Bridgeport and Brewster.
“Everybody wants salmon,” said Joe Peone, director of the Colville tribes’ Fish and Wildlife Program. “The salmon have cultural significance for the tribes, but they’re also an icon for the Northwest.”
The hatchery will be paid for by the Bonneville Power Administration. It’s long-overdue compensation for the construction of Grand Coulee Dam, which was built without fish ladders.
When the dam opened in 1941, it cut off salmon runs to the upper third of the Columbia Basin. Grand Coulee also flooded Kettle Falls, where one of the Northwest’s most prolific salmon fisheries had flourished for 10,000 years, according to archaeological evidence.
As many as 2,000 native fishermen once gathered at the thundering falls, snaring salmon and steelhead in basketlike nets. Tribes came from as far away as Montana to trade buffalo robes and horses for fish.
“Through our oral traditions, we are taught that we’ve always been there and always fished there,” said Mike Finley, chairman of the Confederated Colville Tribes’ governing council.
When the reservoir behind the dam began to fill in 1940, the tribes gathered at Kettle Falls for a three-day “Ceremony of Tears.”
As mitigation for the lost salmon, the federal government pledged to build four hatcheries. Only three were constructed.
A decade ago, Peone stumbled across historic documents mentioning the fourth hatchery. He spearheaded efforts to get it built on the Colville Reservation just downstream from Chief Joseph Dam, which is as far north as salmon can swim up the mainstream Columbia.
“We’re at the end of the food chain, so you see why it’s important for us to be proactive,” Peone said.
The Colville Reservation is more than 500 miles upstream from the ocean. Salmon that return to the reservation must scale nine dams and evade a gantlet of nets and lures that stretch from the ocean through the mid-Columbia. Each dam and each downstream angler takes a toll on the numbers.
Years of hard work paid off in May, when the Northwest Power Planning and Conservation Council approved money for the hatchery’s construction. The council, based in Portland, evaluates fish and wildlife mitigation projects for federal dams in the Columbia Basin. Bonneville Power Administration, which sells the electricity from the dams, funds the mitigation work.
Scheduled to open in 2012, the hatchery will release nearly 3 million chinook smolts each year. Even though relatively small percentages of those fish will return from the ocean, the hatchery still means thousands of salmon for the tribes to harvest.
“The Colvilles have legally protected fishing rights. For over 60 years, those rights have been abused,” said Stephen Smith, a fisheries consultant for the tribes, who worked on the hatchery plan. “They’ve been very patient, and they’ve worked to develop good proposals.”
Since hatchery fish can weaken wild runs, the project had to pass the scrutiny of an independent, scientific review board.
The Chief Joseph Hatchery will use native brood stock from the Okanogan River, so that the fish are genetically adapted to the area. Each salmon that leaves the hatchery will have its adipose fin clipped so it’s recognizable as a hatchery-reared fish.
For the past two years, the Colville tribes have tested purse seine nets and lures that allow them to keep hatchery fish and let the wild salmon go. The catch-and-release system, coupled with upstream weirs on the Okanogan River, will keep hatchery fish from interbreeding with wild fish and diluting native stocks, Smith said.
After the hatchery is built, Peone hopes to see the tribes’ annual salmon catch increase to 10,000 or 20,000 fish. That’s one to two salmon for each tribe member.
“This isn’t a ‘meat factory’ hatchery,” said John Harrison, a Northwest Power and Conservation Council spokesman.
Unlike 1950s-era hatcheries, which were designed to dump salmon into the river system for commercial fishing, the Chief Joseph Hatchery will be a smaller, more controlled operation, Harrison said.
Nearby communities also should benefit. Recreational salmon fishing was once a thriving industry in Bridgeport, a town of 2,200 downstream from the Chief Joseph Dam. “We had guides and hotels,” said Steven Jenkins, Bridgeport’s mayor.
As wild salmon runs dwindled, triggering federal endangered species protections, sport fishing fizzled. The industry has started to rebound in recent years, as stronger numbers of returning salmon allowed more fishing.
The hatchery “is good for everybody,” said J.D. Smith, who organizes the annual Budweiser-Lowrance King Salmon Derby in Brewster. Smith counted 67 fishing boats last weekend on the river – a figure that will swell to more than 100 on Friday, when the derby begins.
“Brewster really thrives on the salmon season,” Smith said. “Our city RV park is full from July 1 through the end of September.”
As dusk settled over the sun-baked landscape, Dwayne Dick packed up from a two-day campout at Chief Joseph Dam. The Nespelem man – on break from his job as a wildland firefighter – caught seven salmon with a fishing rod near the dam’s tailraces in an area that is open only to tribal fishing.
“I’m going to deliver them to the elders,” Dick said, “but I’m going to keep one for us to have for dinner.”
Nearby, Henry “Hobo” Stensgar worked the shoreline, repeatedly casting. The method, called “blind snagging,” puts a three-pronged hook in the water where the angler thinks the salmon will be. Salmon stop feeding as they journey up the Columbia but still snap at large objects, Stensgar said.
He hooked four chinook, each weighing between 18 and 25 pounds. The salmon would be eaten that weekend at his nephew’s wedding in Omak.
Stensgar, who wore traditional braids and an arrowhead choker, follows old ways. Each spring, he said, he observes a salmon ceremony with the first catch of the season, to ensure that salmon will always return to the Columbia.
“They swim up the river for two reasons: to spawn and to feed the hungry,” Stensgar said.
And not just hungry people. From bears to osprey, salmon give life to a lot of creatures, he said.