It was smiles all around Wednesday for those watching the capture of tule fall chinook salmon in southwest Washington’s lower White Salmon River and the fishes’ release upstream, above the soon-to-be-removed Condit Dam.
The trapping effort has been ongoing since Aug. 29 in the effort catch fish before they spawn in the lower three miles of river. Egg nests or redds created there will likely be smothered by sediment that will flush out of Northwest Lake when a hole is punched through the bottom of the dam in late October.
The hope is that the wild “tule” fall chinook salmon population will spawn upriver and start to build the population and fill some five or so miles of mainstem habitat that becomes accessible with the removal of PacificCorp’s Condit Dam. The entire 125-foot-long concrete structure will be removed over the next year.
The dam removal will also open up 33 miles of steelhead habitat that has been blocked since the dam was built. Chinook and steelhead stocks are the two species that would benefit most with the reopening of upstream habitat. Potentially spring chinook, coho and lamprey could eventually colonize.
The reopening of the river is a dream come true for people representing entities that had been engaged in negotiations that led to a court settlement in1999 for the dam’s removal. The dam was built in 1913, equipped with a fish ladder. But the ladder washed out in 1918 flooding and was never replaced.
“We’ve been deprived of the resources of the river,” said Emily Washines, a member of the Yakama Nation whose family has long called the White Salmon River country home. She joined other tribal members, as well as state and federal officials, PacificCorp staff, whitewater rafters, local business owners and others to watch the fish transfer.
Washines showed off beadwork, depicting a tribal fishermen dipping salmon from rushing water with a dipnet, that was about three-quarters complete. It is being made by her mother in honor of the planned opening of the river.
“It’s not done yet, just like this,” she said of the beadwork and the actual dam removal. But the tribe is pleased with what is a relative certainty. The final several feet of the dam’s thickness is scheduled to be blown out Oct. 26.
The 13-foot by 18-foot drain tunnel will drain Northwest Lake, and send downstream an estimated 2.4-million cubic yards of sediment that has accumulated behind the dam since its construction.
The trapping project was collaboratively planned by the White Salmon Technical Working Group, which is made up of representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Yakama Indian Nation, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Forest Service, PacifiCorp and U.S. Geological Survey. All had representatives on hand Wednesday to update media about the progress of the trapping effort.
Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission’s hydro coordinator, Bob Heinith, who has long worked toward finding a removal solution, said the timing is right for the White Salmon tule population to blossom. Forecasts are for good ocean rearing conditions for salmon and potentially high snowpacks and streamflows for the second year in a row, which is good for fish.
“The next three years we are going to have wonderful conditions,” Heinith said.
The White River stock are part of the Lower Columbia chinook “evolutionarily significant unit” which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The ESU includes all naturally spawned populations of chinook salmon from the Columbia River and its tributaries from its mouth at the Pacific Ocean upstream to a transitional point between Washington and Oregon east of the Hood River and the White Salmon River, and includes the Willamette River to Willamette Falls, Oregon, exclusive of spring-run chinook salmon in the Clackamas River, as well as seventeen artificial propagation programs.
Those hatchery stocks include tules produced at Spring Creek National Fish Hatchery, which is located just downstream of the White Salmon’s confluence with the Columbia River. The tule artificial production was launched 100 years ago using wild fish from the White Salmon River.
And still today, “they are genetically identical,” Rod Engle of the USFWS said. He and his agency are leading the trapping-transport operation with help from Yakama Nation, WDFW and CRITFC biologists. And the effort is seeing considerable success.
By Thursday, about 400 tules had been captured and moved upriver. And about 85 percent of those fish were of natural origin, either wild fish or the product of Spring Creek spawners that strayed onto the spawning ground, Engle said.
He said he was surprised at the high percentage of wild fish in the mix. Previous trapping had averaged about 60 percent wild.
“And we’re getting some females that are just fantastic,” -- big 4- and 5-year-old fish that can be expected to be pretty productive.
With an average of about 40 fish being caught per day in recent days, Engle said he expected to easily reach the goal of transporting at least 500 fish upstream.
Most of the fish are being caught about a mile upriver from the mouth with a 200-foot-long seine, which biologists use to encircle the migrating spawners. Then the fish are dipped out of the river, put in water tank and transported a few hundred yards downriver and put in floating tank with holes to allow the pass through of river water.
There the biologist collect genetic samples and outfit the females with external tags so they can be identified later during spawning ground surveys.
When a certain number fish have been corralled and sampled, they are floated downriver, loaded on a tanker truck and then driven upriver past the dam to be released.
A bit farther upstream from the seining operation biologists are using a temporary weir to steer the fish into the White Salmon Ponds, a facility that was until the 1970s used to collect fall broodstock for the Spring Creek National Fish Hatchery. The fish captured there are also being transported upriver.
A few bright fall chinook, steelhead and even about 10 pink salmon have been swept into the nets. Pinks are relatively uncommon in the Columbia River Basin. The steelhead are being genetically sampled and then released so, if trapped again, local origin wild fish can be identified and moved upriver, according to the Yakama Nation Fisheries research scientist Joe Zendt.
Monitoring conducted in 2008 and 2009 showed that transplanted tules did spawn and produce young. Mostly strayed hatchery fish were caught, and transplanted upstream, those years during tests of various fishing gear.
The tests were conducted in preparation for this year. Next year the trapping won’t be necessary.
“We’re looking forward to welcoming the salmon home,” said Bill Sharp, Yakama Nation Fisheries Klickitat coordinator.
PacifiCorp in 1991 filed an application with Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to renew the project's license, which was to expire at the end of 1993. The project has been operating under annual licenses since that time.
But after reviewing FERC's 1996 environmental impact statement for the project, the company decided that its terms and conditions would make operating the dam uneconomic. They included mandatory prescriptions issued by the NOAA Fisheries Service for installation of state-of-the-art fish passage facilities and higher in-stream flows.
Three years later PacifiCorp entered into a settlement agreement with intervenors in the licensing process that called for dam removal.
Since that time the company and others involved have been planning and working through the numerous bureaucratic hoops that had to be cleared before a dam could be removed.
The parties to the settlement that ultimately lead to Condit’s removal include the Yakama Nation, American Rivers, American Whitewater Affiliation, Columbia Gorge Audubon Society, the Columbia Gorge Coalition, Columbia River United, Federation of Fly Fishers, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Friends of the Earth, Friends of the White Salmon River, The Mountaineers, Rivers Council of Washington, The Sierra Club, Trout Unlimited, Washington Trout, the Washington Wilderness Coalition, CRITFC, USFS, the U.S. Department of Interior, NMFS, the Washington Department of Ecology and WDFW.
For documents and more information go to http://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/wr/cwp/condit.html