A return of seven spring chinook and three kokanee-turned-sockeye may seem puny to some, but when you consider the fact they are the first anadromous returns from the Metolius River since 1968, it’s huge.
“It’s pretty exciting,” said Portland General Electric fishery biologist Jim Bartlett. Salmon and steelhead have been long been blocked from historic habitat in the Metolius and Crooked rivers and the upper Deschutes. The three rivers are joined, becoming the Deschutes for the balance of the plunge down to the Columbia River, just above the Pelton Round Butte complex of three hydro projects. The dams have since the ‘60s largely meant an end to upstream and downstream passage.
PGE and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, which co-own the dams, have worked for years with other partners such as the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore passage to the upper reaches.
In recent years hatchery produced juvenile salmon and steelhead have been outplanted in the rivers and tributaries above Round Butte and its reservoir in hope they would thrive and, when ready, head toward the ocean. Round Butte is the uppermost of the three dams.
And in December 2009 a new collection facility was completed at the dam, after an unplanned delay, that allows biologists to trap young spring chinook salmon and steelhead that are emerging from upstream. Those juvenile fish are then trucked downstream around the dams for release so they can continue their journey toward the Pacific.
This early summer marks the first time that adult spawners have returned in search of a path upstream past the dams.
Of the seven spring chinook captured so far at a Pelton Dam trap, five have been adults and two were jacks, young fish that spent only a year in the ocean.
The five adults are a considerable return from the tributary (the Metolius) capture of about 700 juvenile fish in the spring of 2009. When construction of the new collection facility hit a snag, fishery officials were forced trap as many of the juvenile outmigrants as they could in the tributaries. That effort was focused in the Metolius.
“They are nice big fish,” Bartlett said, estimating that the adult chinook weigh about 12-15 pounds. The fish will be spawned the ODFW’s Round Butte Hatchery to infuse the program that is producing the fish for outplanting in streams above the dams. Eventually it is hoped enough fish return to allow the transport of spawners for release above the dams.
The three sockeye collected so far this year “are pretty small,” Bartlett said. Biologists are unsure whether the 20-inch-long fish are jacks or adult fish. That could be determined, after the sockeye are spawned in the hatchery through the examination of otoliths, small bones in their inner ear that reveal varying winter and summer growth rates, much like tree rings.
The returning sockeye likely started life as kokanee in Suttle Lake and/ or its inlet stream, Link Creek. Suttle Lake historically was the origin of one of only two sockeye salmon populations in Oregon. The construction of a barrier at the lake outlet in the early 1900s and later the completion of the Pelton/ Round Butte dam complex blocked anadromous passage to the population. Kokanee are a landlocked form of sockeye.
An effort was also made in the spring of 2009 to trap kokanee in Link Creek for release below the dams. Nearly 900 were captured. Another 200 so made it past the dam after the collection tower went on line in December 2009, Bartlett said.
“Next year is going to be the big year. It’s going to be pretty cool,” Bartlett said. That’s because bigger numbers of fish were collected and transported downstream, and they should return in larger numbers. During that first full year of collector operations in 2010 nearly 100,000 juvenile anadromous fish — including 50,000 kokanee, 42,000 spring chinook and 7,800 steelhead smolts — were transferred downstream to continue their migration to the Pacific Ocean. Some of them should return as adults next year.
And the prospects for 2013 look even better. As of this week 220,629 kokanee, 29,674 spring chinook and 10,604 steelhead had been collected and transported below the dams. Biologists calculate that 98.4 percent of the chinook, 97.7 percent of the kokanee and 98.6 percent of the steelhead survived the collection/transport process, Bartlett said.