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
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
"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
The biologists hope to create — perhaps by 2025
— self-sustaining wild runs that will no longer
depend on an assist from humans and their
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'
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
"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
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
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
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
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
"We are starting to bring these fish back,"
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org