Northwest Indian tribes sharing of any given year’s bounty has precedent. But 2012 might be unique – the Colville tribes of central Washington in one outreach traded a small portion of an overflow harvest of sockeye salmon for buffalo meat provided by the Shoshone-Bannock tribes of central and southeast Idaho.
The 2012 season is witnessing a sockeye salmon return that is of modern-day record proportions. The sockeye counts this year at Bonneville Dam, which has been in place since 1938, had reached 515,255 through Thursday.
The ongoing tally at the dam (which had dwindled to a daily count of 65 Thursday as the return runs its course) has obliterated the previous high annual count of 386,355 in 2010.
The previous record adult sockeye return, as measured at the Columbia’s mouth at the Pacific Ocean, is 387,858 in 2010.
Bonneville Dam, located at river mile 146, is the first hydro project that migrating salmon must negotiate on their way towards spawning grounds in the upper Columbia and Snake river basins.
The vast majority of the returning fish are bound for the Okanogan River basin of north-central Washington and southeastern British Columbia. The vast majority of those Okanogan fish were spawned naturally in the river in Canada just above Lake Osoyoos reservoir, which bridges the U.S.-Canada border. It is estimated that roughly 10 percent of the current Okanogan sockeye crop originates from hatcheries.
The sockeye are the smallest of the salmon species that return to the Columbia/Snake river basin, averaging less than 4 pounds as adults.
Osoyoos-bound sockeye returning from the Pacific Ocean must clear nine mainstem Columbia dams during their spawning run. The final hurdle the sockeye pass before turning off into the Okanogan River is Douglas County Public Utility District’s Wells Dam at Columbia river mile 515.8.
The sockeye count at Grant County PUD’s Priest River Dam in south-central Washington through July 21 was 392,725, which is almost four times the recent 10-year average through that date, and already well above the record count of 357,058 for the 2010 season. Counts there have been taken since 1960. Priest Rapids is about 115 miles downstream of Wells Dam.
The counts at Wells had risen to 257,194 through July 21 with a count that day of 14,935. The sockeye run appears headed for a record-breaking season. The high count at Wells was 291,764 in 2010.
The Colville tribes are netting sockeye near the mouth of the Okanogan in record numbers using their purse seine boat. The purse seine involved the largely benign corralling of fish so that unmarked salmon and steelhead can be released unharmed.
And the Colvilles are sharing with tribes that are not as well equipped, or that do not have direct access to salmon. Some of those tribes have historically harvested salmon but live in areas where salmon access was denied decades ago with the construction of hydro projects, such as the Hells Canyon Complex on the lower Snake and Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee on the mid-Columbia.
“That’s what the Native American tribes are supposed to do,” said Joe Peone, Fish and Wildlife director for the Colville Confederated Tribes. He said Thursday that in recent days tribal fishermen have been catching from 800 to 2,000 of the 3-4-pound sockeye daily. The catch has been sent off in totes of 400-600 fish to other Northwest tribes such as the Wanapum, Kalispell, Shoshone-Bannock and Spokane.
Peone said some Colville tribal members will travel to Idaho, perhaps this fall or winter, for some buffalo hunting.
The Colville tribe also wants at least 6,000 sockeye frozen or otherwise preserved for use in the coming months by its 9,500 members, Peone said. Overall he said the tribes expected to harvest about 50,000 sockeye.
The Colvilles are also sharing the wealth with northern kin that make up the Okanagan Nation Alliance in British Columbia who populate the area surrounding Lake Osoyoos.
The ONA would like to harvest as many as 80,000 fish for its member subsistence needs. And later in the season some of that sockeye wealth could trickle back down with the ONA providing fish for the southern Colville cousins.
“Those are things we’re just starting to work out,” said Howie Wright, the ONA’s Fisheries Program manager.
Today, both non-tribal recreational and tribal commercial fisheries for sockeye begin above the border.
The sockeye abundance is a relatively new phenomenon. According to data posted by the Fish Passage Center there were no sockeye counts at Wells Dam higher than 81,000 from 1977, when counts began, through 2007. The most recent four years’ counts have been well above 100,000.
Much of the credit should go to a “Fish Water Management Tool” developed by a variety of entities with funding from Douglas County PUD, says the PUD’s Shane Bickford, as well as Peone and Wright. More fish friendly mainstem dam operations, favorable ocean conditions and some hatchery production has also added to the sockeye revival.
“If it was only ocean conditions you would see all of the stocks go up at the same time,” Bickford said of the three Columbia basin sockeye stocks from the central Washington’s Wenatchee River (a tributary to the Columbia) basin, the Snake River and the Okanogan. Wenatchee and Snake river populations have seen upticks in recent years too. But neither has ridden a wave as the Okanogan stock.
“The fish that are going through the most dams are flourishing,” Bickford said of the Okanagan stocks.
The FWMT had allowed day-to-day, and even hour-to-hour, water management that both protects young fish and redds-eggs at vital times, and allows the appropriate distribution of water for critical uses such as irrigation, Wright said.
The old “let it rip” water management strategy has been replaced by a more thoughtful approach that avoids springtime flood control flushes of the system that resulted in the scouring out of redds, and severe water saving operations that dried up the river bed at other times of the year.
The computer driven, real-time modeling tool allows the immediate assessment of water and fish conditions, and allows even hour-to-hour manipulations of water in the system to assure that salmon redds are neither dried out, nor scoured by high releases of water.
The Okanagan Basin FWMT project originated as a multi-group collaboration between Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the ONA, the BC Ministry of Environment and Douglas County PUD.
The result is that sockeye smolt output from Osoyoos Lake has increased by 5-10 fold during the 1998-2010 period relative to the 1970-1997 interval.
Recent record returns of Columbia River sockeye principally reflect production of wild Okanagan sockeye responding to increases in escapement of adults back to the basin, smolt production and survival improvements and smolt-to-adult survival improvements, according to a research paper produced by Oceans and Fisheries Canada, the ONA, Douglas County PUD and British Columbia Fisheries.
About 10 percent of the annual Okanogan sockeye returns are from a hatchery program instituted less than 10 years ago. Increased spill for juvenile fish passage in recent years, as well as other improved operations at downstream dams, and favorable ocean conditions, are also given some credit for the upswell in the sockeye population.