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In north-central Washington, coho salmon are fighting the odds

By Hal Bernton, Seattle Times 11/20/06

A salmon in Icicle Creek shows signs that its long journey and its life are almost over.

LEAVENWORTH, Chelan County After a 530-mile journey from the ocean, a salmon skitters in a stream bordered by dogwood and willows. This fish, a precious participant in a $13.5 million experiment to resurrect long-gone wild coho runs of north-central Washington, will soon lay her eggs here.

The runs were wiped out in the early 20th century by fishermen, loggers, miners and farmers. Now they are being revived with the aid of humble hatchery stock transplanted from the Lower Columbia River.

A decade of work, financed by Northwest electrical ratepayers, yields several thousand coho that each year have the fortitude to navigate past seven dams in their upstream migration to the Wenatchee, Entiat and Methow river drainages.

"Each one of these fish is like gold to us for them to have made it all the way through the hydro system," said Tom Scribner, a biologist with the Yakama Nation, which jump-started the runs.

Biologist Keely Murdoch steps around a coho in Mountain Home Creek, which empties into Icicle Creek. STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

The biologists hope to create perhaps by 2025 self-sustaining wild runs that will no longer depend on an assist from humans and their hatcheries.

But the money that now supports the runs could run dry next year. The north-central Washington coho would then likely suffer the dubious distinction of a second fade into history, and their brief reappearance would rank as a costly, wasteful footnote in the broader struggle to restore salmon in the Northwest.

The effort is guided by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, which was established by Congress to help restore fish and wildlife harmed by the construction of Columbia River dams. For the past 10 years, the council recommended the Bonneville Power Administration fund the Yakamas' coho project.

That changed this year as competition sharpened for the $179 million annual BPA budget to spend on restoration projects. Rather than spending money to use hatchery fish to revive dead runs, the council favored increased support for trying to protect those wild runs that survived into the late 20th century, and thus gained federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.

In north-central Washington, much of the money will be spent in the next three years on efforts to restore and protect waterways used by threatened runs of spring chinook salmon and steelhead trout.

"There was a limited amount of money and a lot of requests this year," said Larry Cassidy, a Washington member of the eight-person council. "We have had to make some hard choices."

A new wild fish

The original wild coho of north-central Washington were the product of centuries of evolution that enabled them to successfully reproduce deep in the state's interior. After a final feeding at the mouth of the Columbia River, they would draw on ample supplies of body fat to propel them on the long migration to spawning grounds in the Methow, Entiat and Wenatchee river drainages.

In a good year, more than 50,000 of these coho would return from the sea, according to biologists. A 1910 photograph displays the prize catch from a net hauled from the Methow River with more than 255 coho salmon

But these salmon were among the most vulnerable to the effects of early settlement. Historical records indicate that the wild coho runs went extinct even before the first dams were built on the Columbia in the 1930s. So the Yakama Nation could not tap the original gene pool of the wild coho. "When you lose a stock, you lose a whole lot of things that within the span of a human lifetime are not replaceable," said Jim Lichatowich, a biologist who has critiqued many salmon-recovery projects. "Bringing these fish back from extinction is 10 times harder than trying to protect them from going extinct unless you're God."

Rather than abandon the effort, the Yakamas turned to the hatchery fish of the Lower Columbia and hope to recreate the evolutionary process of nature by forcing these more domesticated fish to make the much-longer journey to north-central Washington. They figured only the fittest of these hatchery coho would be able to make such a migration, and that over time the offspring of those fish could eventually repopulate the region's freshwater drainages.

But numerous studies indicated hatchery fish lack the survival skills of wild fish and that they have less success when they try to reproduce naturally in the drainages. So Keely Murdoch, a lead Yakama Nation biologist on the project, was plenty nervous as she awaited the first returns in the fall of 2000.

"We just weren't sure what would happen," Murdoch said.

The coho came back, an average of about 5,400 fish. Most came to the Wenatchee River drainage.

Some of these coho yield eggs and sperm for offspring that will be birthed in hatcheries. Their young will spend a year of protective confinement before being released to migrate out to sea.

Other coho spawn in the wild. Their offspring face much longer odds of surviving, forced to dodge predators and navigate streams made unfriendly by development. Between 2003 and 2005, Murdoch reports that 261 of these fish showed up in north-central Washington.

Some question whether the north-central Washington coho could ever be fully weaned away from the hatcheries, since the streams have been so profoundly altered from their natural states. That's part of a broader challenge facing the entire regional salmon-recovery effort.

"You can't correct that problem just by stuffing more salmon in the tributaries," Lichatowich said.

A new hope

Given enough time and money, Murdoch has faith that this salmon run will grow.

New generations of coho will have sharper survival skills, and streams can be made more hospitable to the salmon.

"We are starting to bring these fish back," Murdoch said.

The Yakamas have not yet given up on additional funding. If they fail in that effort, tribal biologists expects the run will die off within the next 10 years, perhaps sooner.

That knowledge has added a frustrating edge to the excitement that normally surrounds the salmon's fall return.

This year, through an unusually dry October, the coho were slow to show up in the spawning grounds.

Then came the early November monsoons. When the rains finally eased, Murdoch and her crew found a flush of new coho had arrived in the streams.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com


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