Salmon recovery on schedule

November 6, 2012
Salmon recovery on schedule

Salmon recovery is going well - but many things have to happen in sequence to make the return of a native fishery a reality.

That was the message delivered last Wednesday afternoon by Michael Riehle, supervisory fish biologist for the Sisters Ranger District, in an hour-long lecture to a large group of Sisters Country residents at the Sisters Library on the status of the salmon recovery plan for this region.

According to Riehle, the Eastern Cascades Population Group must include the Deschutes River watershed to be viable. Reintroduction of steelhead into Whychus Creek is critical to meet this recovery requirement. The reintroduction plan includes the Crooked River sub-basin to reestablish sustainable and harvestable populations in the Deschutes Basin.

Riehle began his story of the salmon fish passage at Round Butte Dam, and on the Metolius River, beginning in 1957, when the first high dams were erected along the Deschutes: the Round Butte Dam at 440 feet, Pelton Dam at 204 feet, and the re-regulating dam at 88 feet.

"And as you can imagine," he said, "swimming around a dam, 440 feet above the reservoir would take a lot of doing."

And it was with a tinge of sadness that he described the end of fish passage in 1968.

The effort to keep Chinook going by putting in a fish ladder at Steelhead Falls on the Deschutes - with what Mike described as a "wonderful use of dynamite" - kept the hopes alive to one day finding a method of bringing salmon back to the Upper Deschutes and Metolius Rivers.

Riehle emphasized the importance of Suttle Lake. In the early 1940s it was an important sockeye spawning area, but the dams kept the smolts (young salmon at the stage when it becomes covered with silvery scales and first migrates from fresh water) from migrating to mature in the sea. The result was that the kokanee became land-locked, and Suttle Lake no longer supported a wild salmon fishery. Some fishery biologists believe the kokanee in Suttle Lake could - if provided with passage to the ocean - return as sockeye.

All through his talk, Riehle pointed out why recovery efforts in the Deschutes River and tributaries have been successful. It began with the combined efforts of the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, Portland General Electric, and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, along with the help of trained volunteers and the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, plus many other river-users.

The technology of fish-tagging - the use of many types of data recording devices - came into play in the 1990s, making it possible for fish biologists and habitat managers to put in place a management plan that all could agree to, and put money into.

The real boon to the plan came when PGE spent several million dollars perfecting a strange-looking device at Round Butte Dam, which has proven to be one of the most successful tools yet in providing safe passage of fish from upstream of the dams to safe water below them: The Selective Water Withdrawal Tower.

Biologists, engineers and fishery management officials spent thousands of hours perfecting the tower that skims fish in 30 feet of water for safe transport, and also allows fish to pass through, deep beneath the surface.

The thousands and thousands of hours spent tagging and recapturing fish throughout the recovery areas has also proved to be a benefit; in addition to the data collected, it also demonstrated that all the handling the fish went though at different ages and locations during their travels was not damaging them.

Biologists and volunteers were seeing an 82 percent survival rate.

Tagged and marked fish were caught again and again in good health, and the data they provided put biologists and engineers closer to their end goal of providing safe passage for fish from the sea to their ancestral spawning grounds.

In order to make the recovery plan work, a fisheries management direction had to be established, which includes:

• The upper Deschutes River sub-basin will be managed for naturally produced spring Chinook salmon, summer steelhead, and sockeye salmon.

• Hatchery fish will be released until spawner-escapement goals are met. It is desirable to eliminate supplementation as early as possible.

• Preliminary escapement goals are to achieve 500 adults in three consecutive years for summer steelhead and spring Chinook salmon.

• Preliminary escapement goals are to achieve 1,000 adults in three consecutive years for sockeye salmon.

So far, the first of that 1,000 adult sockeye needed for a natural run have returned to the Metolius River.

"Hopefully, next year we'll see a lot more," Riehle stated, "and if we can continue to see the cooperation we are seeing now from all the partners in this long-term project, it will succeed."

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