BRIDGEPORT, Wash. – Cheers went up when Colville tribal fisherman Mylan Williams hauled a 20-pound chinook out of the Columbia River with a dip net.
Then hats came off in a show of respect. Tribal elders circled the fish and sang, honoring the salmon that gave up its life to feed the people.
For thousands of years, ancestors of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation have performed First Salmon ceremonies on the banks of the Columbia. But in recent decades, only a few fish have returned.
The tribe recently celebrated the opening of a $50 million hatchery designed to bolster runs to the Upper Columbia and a tributary, the Okanogan River.
The first salmon smolts will be released from the hatchery next year. They’ll make a 500-mile trip to the ocean, with the first adults returning to the hatchery to spawn in 2016.
“We are salmon people,” John Sirois, the Colville Tribes’ chairman, told a festive crowd gathered for the hatchery’s opening late last month.
In addition to providing subsistence fishing that will help the 9,500-member tribe retain its heritage, the hatchery will support sport fishing in the nearby Columbia River towns of Bridgeport, Brewster and Pateros.
“We’ve been supportive and excited for quite a while because we know that our towns will reap the benefits,” said Gail Howe, mayor of Pateros.
Ratepayers for the Bonneville Power Administration are paying for most of the hatchery, which is mitigation for the construction of Grand Coulee Dam. The Grant County Public Utilities District also contributed $10 million through a fisheries mitigation program.
Connie Shaver, a tribal member, filleted salmon steaks for barbecue over a charcoal fire. The orange-fleshed chinook, served for lunch after the hatchery dedication, was caught at Icicle Creek near Leavenworth. In the future, however, the salmon consumed at tribal gatherings could come from Chief Joseph Hatchery.
The hatchery will release up to 2.9 million young salmon smolts each year. Since the salmon will pass through a gantlet of dams and fishing nets on their trip to the ocean and back, just less than 1 percent are expected to return, said Pat Phillips, hatchery manager. That still provides thousands more fish for the tribe, whose annual take from the mainstream Columbia is around 6,500 annually.
Salmon once accounted for about a third of the calories in tribal members’ diets. But that changed with the construction of Grand Coulee, which was built during the 1930s without fish ladders. Engineers of the time thought it would be too costly and technically challenging to build a fish ladder over the massive hydropower project.
When the dam opened in 1941, it cut off salmon runs to the upper third of the Columbia Basin. It also flooded Kettle Falls, where one of the Northwest’s most prolific salmon fisheries had flourished for 10,000 years.
Historical accounts indicate that Indian fishers caught more than 1,000 salmon a day at Kettle Falls. In his diary, Elkanah Walker, an early missionary, wrote about watching hundreds of salmon at a time leaping out of the water.
“We’ve been denied good fishing for a lot of years,” said John Smith, a former fish and wildlife director for the Colville Tribes. “I’ve seen the devastation that had on the reservation.”
The federal government had pledged to build four hatcheries as mitigation for the lost salmon, but only three were built. More than a decade ago, the tribe began lobbying for the construction of the fourth hatchery. They proposed a site on the Colville Reservation, just downstream from Chief Joseph Dam.
The hatchery was scrutinized by an independent, scientific review board. Scientists wanted to ensure that hatchery fish wouldn’t dilute the genetics of remaining wild salmon runs.
“The Chief Joseph Hatchery incorporates most of the new thinking on how we do this,” said Peter Paquet, who works for the Portland-based Northwest Power Planning and Conservation Council, which evaluates fish mitigation programs for federal dams in the Columbia Basin.
The hatchery’s brood stock comes from the Upper Columbia Basin so the fish will be genetically adapted to the area.
In addition, the Colville Tribes have been testing nets and lures that allow them to keep hatchery fish and let wild salmon go. The catch-and-release system, along with weirs on the Okanogan River, will reduce the number of hatchery fish that stray and end up interbreeding with wild fish.
At the hatchery dedication, tribal elders told stories about fishing from scaffolds along the river, building racks for drying fish and passing that knowledge to their sons, nephews and grandchildren.
In their parents’ generation, tribal fishers caught 100-pound “June hogs” – extra-big and sturdy salmon that passed through the Colville Reservation on their way to spawning grounds in Canada. That run, and its genetics, were lost when Grand Coulee went in.
Ernie Williams, a tribal elder, dreams of a day when salmon will scale the 550-foot dam. Technology keeps improving, so maybe it will be possible someday, he said.
“I may not live to see it,” Williams said, “but maybe my children or my grandchildren will.”