On Thursday, Sept 27 a fish biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife confirmed the first observed spawning sockeye salmon in the Metolius River in more than 45 years.
The Metolius joins the Crooked and Deschutes rivers in central Oregon’s Lake Billy Chinook above the Pelton-Round Butte hydro project, which has for that half century blocked upstream passage of anadromous fish – salmon and steelhead that are born in freshwater, mature at sea and then return to spawn in their natal streams.
The three rivers become the Deschutes, which flows about 100 miles downstream from the dam complex before entering the Columbia River.
Mike Gauvin spotted the sockeye while conducting annual kokanee spawning surveys in the Metolius River near the town of Camp Sherman.
“I saw a flash of red color and was able to see the green tags that confirmed it was a sockeye,” he said. “I stayed very still so I would not disturb the fish and watched it swim over its redd; I snapped a few photos and was able to see the radio tag antenna trailing out of it mouth.”
According to Gauvin, this same sockeye had been captured earlier this summer at the fish trap located below the Pelton Round Butte Dam complex. It was given two green tags to help to identify it as an ocean-going sockeye salmon returning to freshwater to spawn and not a kokanee, a landlocked form of sockeye salmon. Returning sockeye have the luxury of plenty of mates, unlike returning chinook and steelhead who must find the few returnees of their species.
“They certainly will spawn with kokanee,” Gauvin said of sockeye, which are the progeny of kokanee. The returning sockeye are flocking to the cool, spring-fed Metolius, which has long been a hotbed of kokanee production.
“It’s where we expect them,” Gauvin said.
The vast majority of the radio-tagged sockeye have been spotted in the Metolius, though as of Sept. 28 had signaled from the Crooked River. The 25 or so chinook, which are hatchery fish outplanted above the dams in the three rivers, are more scattered.
“They’re showing up in all three rivers,” Hill said.
The returning sockeye also was given a radio tag so biologists could track its movements through Lake Billy Chinook and up the river. After tagging, the fish was released above the dams to continue its migration.
The fish is one of 85 sockeye released above the dam so far this year. These fish had spent one or two years in the ocean prior to making their return to the Deschutes River basin. A total of nearly 45,000 juvenile kokanee/sockeye were captured in 2010 above Round Butte Dam in the new fish collection facility, which began operating in December 2009. The fish are sorted and transported downstream to the free-flowing Deschutes River.
Another 205,000 juvenile kokanee were transported downstream in 2011.
“It was a pretty exciting day,” said PGE biologist Megan Hill said of the witnessed spawning event.
The sockeye and kokanee spawning migration is just beginning, Gauvin said, and fish biologists from ODFW, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, and Portland General Electric will be in the field until the end of October counting spawning fish.
“We have also passed about 25 spring chinook above the dams this year and, since they also spawn this time of year, we’ll be keeping an eye out for them as well,” said Gauvin.
The reintroduction program began in 2007 by outplanting over a half million each of juvenile steelhead and chinook in the Crooked, Deschutes, and Metolius rivers. The young fish then migrate downriver through a fish collection facility constructed by PGE and the Confederated Tribes at Round Butte Dam. From there they are released in the river below the dam to migrate to the ocean.
To try and reestablish a sockeye run in the Metolius River, kokanee from Lake Billy Chinook were collected and released below the dam to migrate to the ocean.
“The reintroduction program has been a large, complex and coordinated effort by many stakeholders,” Gauvin said. “We’re still in the beginning stages of this program, so it feels really good to see tangible results of our work.”