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Reintroducing A Run: First Time In 45 Years Adult Salmon Returning To Upper Deschutes Basin
Posted on Friday, June 08, 2012 (PST)

A first group of adult spring chinook salmon – likely about five fish -- were scheduled to be released today above the Pelton Round Butte Hydro project on the Deschutes River in central Oregon on their way to spawning grounds on the Deschutes, Crooked and Metolius rivers, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.


The “known origin” fish are the first such returns to the Deschutes in more than 45 years. They and fish that follow will to be trapped and transported around the three-dam complex so they can spawn in the upper reaches of the Deschutes River basin. The Crooked and Metolius join the Deschutes at Round Butte Dam’s reservoir, Lake Billy Chinook.


By late this week a total of 13 spring chinook trapped this year below the lowermost dam have been identified as having originated upstream. They are part of an ambitious fish reintroduction effort aimed at re-establishing anadromous fish populations in the upper basin that had passage blocked in the 1960s with the construction of the Pelton Round Butte Dam Complex.


Project partners, stakeholders, volunteers and others were invited to the event this morning -- the Fish Release Celebration -- to watch the historic fish releases.


Project leaders and biologists from Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Portland General Electric and the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon were on hand to discuss the project and on-going salmon/steelhead recovery efforts in the upper Deschutes basin. A ceremony with a blessing of the fish was planned by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.


Under an agreement reached early this year about half of the returning fish of upstream origin will be released into Billy Chinook so they can proceed upstream to spawn. The balance would be brought to nearby Round Butte Hatchery to be used as broodstock to provide the next, perhaps more environmentally suited, generation of spring chinook to be outplanted above the dams.


The returning fish in actuality started life at the hatchery. A share of the young fish produced there have been in recent years also hauled above the dams and released in hopes that they would call the waters there home, migrate to the ocean to grow and return to spawn after maturing in the Pacific Ocean. The young fish are marked at the hatchery with a chipped right maxillary bone near the jaw so they can be identified upon their return.


The outplanted fish later found their way down through the reservoir to a new fish collection device, which was first fully operational in 2010, at Round Butte. There salmon and steelhead, as well as kokanee, were swept in, sorted and transported downstream for release in the free-flowing Deschutes so they could migrate down to the Columbia River, and then to the ocean.


Any of the kokanee outmigrants that make the round trip back to the Deschutes would be considered sockeye salmon. Kokanee are landlocked versions of the sockeye species. The steelhead and sockeye usually return later in the spring-through-fall season than spring chinook.


A total of 44,000 spring chinook, 7,700 steelhead, and 49,700 kokanee were passed downriver in 2010. And they are expected to produce the first significant number of adult fish to return to the dam complex this summer and fall.


Fishery officials had hoped for a return as high as 400 spring chinook from above the dams.


But business thus far has been light at the adult fish trap below the lowest of the three dams in the system. The Columbia-Snake river basin spring chinook in 2012 have been finding its way upriver on a later schedule than normal. And overall the run is below expectations, though close to the 10-year average so far.


The spring chinook count at Bonneville Dam on the lower Columbia through Wednesday is 169,686 adult fish. From there any fish headed for the Deschutes must climb over The Dalles Dam, then take a right turn before getting to John Day Dam.


The count through Wednesday at The Dalles was 122,163 spring chinook, and at least 107,655 of them had bypassed the Deschutes and passed over John Day’s fish ladders. After the fish pass Bonneville at river mile 146 they have a few options – including Washington’s White Salmon and Klickitat rivers, before getting to the Deschutes.


Citing lower than expected returns of adult spring chinook, ODFW fishery managers announced Monday that the Deschutes River would close to spring chinook fishing at 12:01 a.m. on Thursday, June 7.


According to Rod French, ODFW fish biologist, returns are running far below pre-run estimates of 1,859 wild and 14,400 hatchery fish. He estimated only about 500 hatchery fish have returned to Deschutes hatcheries as of May 31, and only 150 wild fish have returned. Most of the wild fish are returning to the Warm Spring River, a tributary to the Deschutes.


“The run may just be extremely late, but typically 65 percent of the run has returned by this date,” he said. “Letting the season continue is not a chance we can take and still protect wild fish and insure our hatcheries get enough fish for broodstock.”


Detection systems at Bonneville Dam allow managers to identify fish that have been outfitted PIT tags and thus track their coming and goings


“PIT tag detections at Bonneville are not indicating we’re getting a lot of fish” of Deschutes origin, whether they be from upriver or elsewhere, said ODFW’s Mike Gauvin.


The mouth of the Deschutes is about 100 river miles downstream from the adult trap. Bonneville is roughly50 miles downstream from there.


The fishery managers would like to get back from 400 to 500 spawners to use as broodstock for Warm Springs National Fish Hatchery, which is on the river of the same name, and 900 to Round Butte Hatchery, which is located just downstream of the dam of the same name. Round Butte Hatchery is operated by ODFW and funded by Portland General Electric as mitigation for dam impacts. The Pelton Round Butte project is now jointly owned by PGE and the tribes. Warm Springs is operated by the tribes.


The fishing season was originally scheduled to close July 31.


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