Arrow-right Camera

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Sunday, April 5, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Cloudy 35° Cloudy

Outdoors blog

Nez Perce reintroduce coho salmon to Grande Ronde basin

UPDATED with Associated Press stories at end.

FISHING -- Coho salmon took a big leap toward restoration in the Grande Ronde River basin on Thursday as the Nez Perce Tribe, coordinating with Oregon Fish and Wildlife, released 500,000 coho smolts into the Lostine River.

A ceremony was held to honor the salmon in the northeastern Oregon waters where Chief Joseph hunted and fished as a youth. 

The release of fish from a hatchery tanker occurred on the Woody Wolf Ranch east of Wallowa, Oregon, about 600 river miles from the Pacific Ocean, where the fish are programmed swim and mature. 

Becky Johnson, director of the tribe's Department of Fisheries Resource Management production division, said coho once thrived in the basin but have been pretty much gone since at least 1986. 

"Her division's focus is putting fish in the rivers to rebuild natural spawning runs and to restore harvest opportunities," reports Rick Itami, an angler who was invited to the release and ceremony.

"This new endeavor is co-managed by the Nez Perce Tribe and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife," he said.  "The project follows the Tribe's successful reintroduction of coho salmon to the Clearwater River Basin."

In 2014, fish counters tallied 18,098 adult coho passing over Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River as they proceeded upstream into Idaho and Oregon.

That reintroduced run led to the first specific coho fishing season to be set in the history of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. The catch-and-keep coho sportfishing season provided sport fishermen with adult coho ranging from 8 to nearly 12 pounds

"The coho reintroduction into the Clearwater River Basin provided valuable lessons that hopefully will improve the chances for success in the Grande Ronde River Basin," Itami said.  "Johnson says they learned to only use eggs and sperm from adults that returned all the way to the hatcheries and traps to ensure that the offspring would have the hardiness of the strongest fish."

The coho smolts released Thursday are a Lower Columbia strain from the Cascade Hatchery on Tanner Creek, he said, noting, "This is the same hatchery from which coho smolts came from for the initial releases into the Clearwater River Basin."

The goal is to have 600 naturally produced adult coho return to the Lostine River, said Bruce Eddy, ODFW Eastern Region manager.

Depending on various factors, a sportfishing season could be considered in about 10 years, Eddy said.

Art Droncheau, a tribal elder who worked for the Nez Perce Department of Fisheries for 17 years, said he hopes to see coho runs in the Grande Ronde River Basin reach historic levels, which numbered around 20,000 fish in the 19th century. 

"He emphasized the cultural and religious significance of the return of the Coho salmon to the Nez Perce Tribe and said that water is the most important factor in the circle of life for the salmon," Itami reports.

Here's an Associated Press story about the event filed after this initial post:

By GILLIAN FLACCUS/Associated Press

LOSTINE, Ore. (AP) – These speckled, rose-tinted fish haven’t been spotted in this bubbling river in remote northeastern Oregon for more than 30 years – until now.

But this week, the waters of the Lostine River suddenly came alive as hundreds of the 4- and 5-inch-long juvenile coho salmon shot from a long white hose attached to a water tanker truck and into the frigid current. The fish jumped and splashed and some, momentarily shell-shocked, hid along the bank as onlookers crowded in for photos.

“All of us are speaking from the heart and our gladness for these fish coming back into this river, bringing something that has vanished, but has come back,” Nez Perce tribal elder Charles Axtell said. “We take care of each other and that’s what we are doing – taking care of this fish. We are the circle of life.”

The cohos’ baptism in this far-flung river marks the end of one journey and the beginning of another – an attempt to restore a lost species to a tribe and to a region.

The fish, raised by state wildlife officials in a hatchery outside Portland, were trucked 300 miles inland in nine water tanker trucks equipped with highly sensitive oxygen and temperature sensors and a bubbling system that mimics a river’s current. Now in the Lostine River, they must turn around and swim 600 miles to the Pacific Ocean over the next month and then swim home after a year and a half in the Pacific Ocean feeding and growing.

Biologists expect to see the adult fish returning to this remote corner of the state next fall.

Coho salmon once numbered 20,000 here each year and were part of a rich tribal tradition for the Nez Perce. The tribe was driven from this part of Oregon by the U.S. government more than a century ago, but its members consider the species critical to their history and have fought for years to bring back the reddish, hook-nosed fish.

Numbers of coho declined throughout the 20th century due to pollution, human impacts on their habitat, overfishing and the construction of hydroelectric dams that impeded their progress upstream.

The Nez Perce successfully reintroduced coho salmon into the Clearwater River in Idaho in the mid-1990s. The program was so successful that Idaho permitted non-tribal fishing of coho during one season a few years ago, said Michael Bisbee Jr., coho project leader for the Nez Perce. The tribe hopes to repeat the Idaho project’s success in Oregon.

“If we could get at least 800 total adults back from this release in a couple years here, that would be outstanding,” Bisbee said Thursday, as he awaited the salmons’ arrival. “I’m super excited. The tribe’s been working on getting coho back here into Oregon for a long time and we’re minutes away from making history.”

As the fish waited in the truck under a steady rain, tribal leader Axtell welcomed them with a blessing and a traditional traveling song.

He then rang a bell three times, turned in a circle and watched with emotion as state wildlife workers poured the young fish into the current.

The juvenile fish are being released at a critical point in their life cycle when they learn to recognize their home region before leaving for the Pacific Ocean. Their bodies also are changing so they can survive in saltwater.

They face a long and perilous journey. The baby salmon must pass through several rivers before reaching the giant Columbia River and swimming into the ocean. Along the way, they must navigate hungry birds and sea lions, anglers and the hydraulic dams that power much of the Pacific Northwest and break up the highway of water they rely upon.

By the time the bulk of them return, the tiny fish will be more than 2 feet long and weigh up to 10 pounds.

“We’ll be lucky if half of the fish we release even get to the ocean, and in the ocean only 2 or 3 percent will survive,” said Becky Johnson, division director for hatchery programs with the Nez Perce tribe. “We would be really happy to get 1 percent of those 500,000 fish back. It would be even good if we got half a percent back.”

Even such small numbers would be enough to start a renewed connection for the Nez Perce with their own lost home, said Axtell.

Multiple attempts to reintroduce coho salmon to the basin over the past century have failed.

But fish biologists, backed with lessons learned and the latest hatchery techniques, believe this time will be different.

“Just to play a small role in that legacy is really encouraging for me,” said Jeff Yanke, a fish biologist with Oregon’s wildlife agency. “I hope my kids and grandkids will be able to catch these fish and say that their dad and grandpa played a small role in making this happen.”

Here's another take on the event through the words of Eric Barker, Outdoor writer for the Lewiston Tribune:

LOSTINE, Ore. – A brief but enthusiastic cheer erupted from a crowd of dignitaries and fisheries workers here as a torrent of juvenile coho salmon – more fish than water, really – spewed into the Lostine River Thursday.

The 500,000 smolts that poured out of a hatchery truck and into the river flowing clear over a cobbled bed of rounded rocks marked the beginning of an ambitious and long recovery project between the Nez Perce Tribe and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The species has been absent from the rivers of northeastern Oregon for more than three decades, and its return was welcomed in a short ceremony that melded modern science and tribal culture as rain drops gently rippled the surface of river. The brown grass overhanging banks of the Lostine River was still limp from winter, and the trees above void of leaves, as the fish acclimated to their new environment.

Soon the trees will bud, the grass will grow and the deep snow in the towering Wallowa Mountains will melt, swell the river and push the young fish downstream. The coho will ride the rushing Lostine that merges first with the Wallowa River, then the Grande Ronde, Snake and Columbia rivers, before pushing into the salty Pacific Ocean.

Most of the fish will spend two years there growing strong and fat before attempting to return to the basin in the autumn of 2019, just as yellow cottonwood leaves begin to fall and float downstream. It’s all part of the cycle of life, said Nez Perce tribal elder Chuck Axtell before he blessed the fish and sang well wishes for their journey.

“Their cycle is pretty long,” he noted.

If the reintroduction is successful, the Lostine may one day be so chocked with red-sided adult coho that it will resemble stories his grandmother used to tell him as a boy.

“All you could see is nothing but red up and down that river,” Axtell said, recalling her words about the nearby Imnaha River.

Such an outcome would be just fine with the fisheries managers who have been working for 20 years on the project. Bruce Eddy, regional manger for Oregon Fish and Wildlife, called the release the start of a long journey that he likened to a new marriage or the birth of a child. It will have many ups and downs, he said, but the trip will be made smoother by the cooperation between the state and tribal agencies.

“It’s nice to see how well the staffs work together and solve collective problems,” Eddy said.

Becky Johnson, production manager for the tribe’s Fisheries Division, said lessons learned from the long effort to re-establish coho in the Clearwater River will help guide the effort in Wallowa County.

“Everything we learned from the Clearwater can be helpful in what we do here,” she said.

The tribe acquired surplus eggs from a lower Columbia River hatchery in the late 1980s to start the Clearwater coho reintroduction program. The fish were released in Lapwai and Clear creeks. For years they struggled with meager returns. But slowly, enough adults came back each year that borrowing eggs from other programs became unnecessary. The run started to gain strength about five years ago and then boomed in 2015, when the returns were strong enough to allow fishing for the first time in many decades.

The agencies are following a similar blueprint in the Lostine River. The smolts are from a hatchery run in the lower Columbia River. Over time, as enough adults return to northeastern Oregon, a local broodstock will be developed and produce offspring with the genetic make-up to survive the long trip.

Even if the recovery process proves as arduous as the physical journey the young fish released Friday will soon endure, it will pay invaluable dividends for those involved.

“We do this for the love we have for our culture and our people,” said Quincy Ellenwood, a member of the tribe’s executive committee.

Rich Landers
Rich Landers joined The Spokesman-Review in 1977. He is the Outdoors editor for the Sports Department writing and photographing stories about hiking, hunting, fishing, boating, conservation, nature and wildlife and related topics.

Follow Rich online:

Go to the full Outdoors page