The 2011 steelhead return was 11-fish strong as of Monday with more fish expected to trickle in, and completed sockeye and spring chinook salmon runs were small too. All, however, are encouraging signs for those involved in an effort to restore those fish stocks in central Oregon’s Metolius, Crooked and upper Deschutes rivers.
Those returns (including seven chinook and 19 sockeye) are the first from fish that originated above the Round Butte-Pelton dam complex since about 1968. And they yielded the first eggs, again small in numbers, from anadromous (ocean-going) fish that originated in the Metolius, Crooked and upper Deschutes since the 1960s.
The steelhead and salmon runs to those streams were effectively choked out when downstream fish passage built into the dams proved to be ineffective. But downstream passage has been restored. This year’s returns are the first of fish that started life in Round Butte Hatchery, were outplanted in the rivers and tributaries above the reservoir (Lake Billy Chinook) and then captured and transported around the dams last year and the year before so they could continue their migration to the Pacific.
“We’re learning a lot as we go,” the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Mike Gauvin said this week, especially as pertains to sockeye. One of the goals of the anadromous fish reintroduction is to re-establish a sockeye salmon run up the Deschutes to the Metolius River basin through Lake Billy Chinook. The Metolius feeds into the Deschutes just above Round Butte, the uppermost of the three dams in the complex.
Sockeye need a lake for rearing and historically they have used Suttle Lake in the upper Metolius Basin and spawned in Link Creek between Suttle and Blue lakes, according Don Ratliff, senior biologist for Portland General Electric.
When Lake Billy Chinook was formed in 1964, the lake-type sockeye habitat in the basin increased dramatically, but the fishes’ path to the ocean was blocked. So it is believed the population reverted to being kokanee, the name given to sockeye that remain and rear to adulthood in freshwater lakes. It is hoped that fish trapped at a new collection facility at Round Butte will swim to the ocean, grow and return to spawn upriver, reviving the ocean-going form, sockeye.
The first sockeye appeared in July and a total of 19 were trapped downstream from the dams during July and August. All were smaller fish that spent only one season in the ocean as opposed to the more typical sockeye life history with two years in the ocean.
Ratliff said the sockeye weren’t much larger than kokanee kin of the same age, but “they had three times the number of eggs.”
The eggs were collected are on their way to being hatched out and this winter will be outplanted in the Metolius.
“We’re not expecting a lot,” Gauvin said given the relative small number of fish, and eggs, involved.
But it’s a start. A total of 49,734 yearling kokanee/sockeye were trapped last year and released downstream of the dams. They produced this year’s “one-salt” return and are expected in much greater numbers when the two-salt portion of that brood returns next year.
More than 225,000 kokanee migrated downstream and through the reservoir and were collected in the new Selective Water Withdrawal facility this year. That was nearly five times as many kokanee that migrated downstream in 2010, a fact that should boost the one-salt return next year. Much of the increase is likely due to a much larger kokanee spawning year-class in 2009 that produced yearlings in 2011, Ratliff said.
The first returning upriver steelhead arrived Oct. 6. All of the steelhead returning this fall and winter migrated in 2010, so they also have spent only one year in ocean and are relatively small. The steelhead returns are the survivors from a relatively small crew. Only 7,733 1-3-year smolts were trapped and transported around the dams last year.
“The fact that we have that many back already is encouraging,” Gauvin said.
“Next year, we will capture both one-ocean-year steelhead from the 2011 outmigration and larger two-ocean-year steelhead adults from the 2010 outmigration,” Ratliff said in a blog posted at http://www.deschutespassage.com/news/?p=83
“Steelhead first start entering the Pelton Trap in October and continue coming through March, so we expect to capture many more in coming months,” he wrote. A total 10,606 steelhead smolts were transported downstream this year.
“For the current migration season, plans are for the Round Butte hatchery to use all the returning fish to produce fry for release upstream,” Ratliff wrote. “That?s according to our partners with Oregon Fish and Wildlife and Warm Springs Tribes who manage these runs.
“We?re hopeful that, starting with the spring chinook run in 2012, we?ll have enough upriver salmon and steelhead returning that we can begin passing them upstream.” The fry produced this year will be stocked upstream.
The first spring chinook salmon of upriver origin returned in May. From May through July 2011, five adult and two jack spring chinook were captured and spawned. The jacks are fish that spent one year in the ocean. A total of 44,017 smolts were collected in 2010.
The five adults are the 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 and transport them for release below the dams.
PGE and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, which co-own the dams, have worked for years with other partners such as the ODFW, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others to restore habitat and 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 survive and make their way downstream and across Lake Billy Chinook.
In December 2009 a 273-foot underwater tower and fish collection station above Round Butte Dam was completed and operational, providing what has proven to be a very functional passage instrument.
“This complicated operation seems to be working,” Ratliff said. The facility allows biologists to trap young salmon and steelhead drawn to the tower by the flow toward Round Butte’s hydro turbines. The juvenile fish are then sorted with some species being returned to the lake and others trucked around the dams.