By Bill Crampton, Columbia Basin Bulletin

In The News

Historically about one million coho salmon returned annually to the Columbia River and were abundant throughout the upper Columbia River and Snake River watersheds. By the 1980s, the fish were gone from the basin interior  – extirpated. But today, in several rivers above Bonneville Dam, the coho are back.

In 1995, not a single coho crossed Lower Granite Dam, the furthest upstream dam on the lower Snake River. Last year, 2021, nearly 25,000 coho passed the dam, heading to the Clearwater and Grande Ronde river basins. That compares with about 30,000 fall chinook and 642 sockeye passing the dam last year.

In 1978, not a single coho showed up at McNary Dam. In 2021, nearly 100,000 adult coho passed the dam — higher passage numbers by far compared to spring chinook, summer chinook, and steelhead.  

In 1999, no coho were known to be as far upriver as Rock Island Dam near Wenatchee, WA. Last year, over 60,000 coho passed the dam. Those are higher passage numbers than for summer chinook (55,000), spring chinook, fall chinook and steelhead (each well under 20,000).

So as the region struggles to improve survival numbers for numerous flagging populations of naturally-producing Columbia River basin salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act, with full blown NOAA Fisheries recovery plans, a non-listed, once-extinct salmon species in the interior basin, with no NOAA recovery plan, is showing some impressive comeback numbers.

How did this happen?

Columbia River treaty tribes, despite resistance from others in the early days, were determined to return functionally extinct coho to the interior basin waters as they worked to increase return numbers for struggling chinook, sockeye and steelhead.

And these efforts are bearing fish, lots of fish.

This week, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council Fish and Wildlife Committee heard presentations on the background of the Tribes’ coho reintroduction programs, the methods used to produce, raise and release the fish, and the coho’s current status.

Representatives of the reintroduction programs explained their efforts to bring back a Columbia River basin salmon species that disappeared before it could be listed under the 1973 Endangered Species Act.

Indeed, in the late 1970s, the American Fisheries Society took the lead in preparing petitions to add coho, along with Snake River Chinook and sockeye, to the federal Endangered Species List. But AFS withdrew the petitions when Congress passed the Northwest Power Act. The Act authorized the four Northwest states to form the Northwest Power and Conservation Council and directed the Council to prepare a program to “protect, mitigate and enhance” fish and wildlife affected by hydropower in the Columbia River Basin.

The petitioners waited a decade to see whether the fish and wildlife mitigation authorized under the Power Act would boost the runs. Unfortunately, under the Power Act the runs continued to decline.

Listing petitions for basin salmon were filed in 1991, but it was too late for the extirpated coho. A petition was filed in 1992 to add Snake River coho to the federal ESA list, but the National Marine Fisheries Service rejected it because it did not include “substantial scientific or commercial information” that would warrant listing. Accordingly, the agency declined to initiate a status review of the coho.

Harvest of coho, along with other salmonids in the Columbia River basin, has been fundamental to the nutrition, economy, and cultural and religious beliefs of regional Native American tribes.

Agricultural development, dam construction, urbanization, and overharvest following colonization by European-origin settlers resulted in dramatic reductions in coho and other salmon runs.

For federal and state fishery agencies attempting to mitigate for the loss, coho was not a top priority and the fish were essentially allowed to go functionally extinct.

In the mid-1990s, fishery agencies of four Columbia River treaty tribes with fishing rights spearheaded efforts to reestablish the extirpated coho, beginning in the Yakima, Umatilla, Wenatchee, Methow, and Clearwater rivers.

There was some resistance in the beginning. Non-tribal fisheries managers expressed concerns about fish health and competition with other salmon species.

But unwilling to forego the opportunity to reintroduce coho, the Tribes maintained that the salmon management plan created under the U.S. v Oregon case and tribal sovereignty provided them with the authority to reintroduce coho despite the objections.

Today, however, the coho reintroductions are full-fledged partnerships with state and federal agencies.

The programs were initiated with juveniles from composite lower Columbia River hatchery stocks, acclimated or direct released near potential spawning habitat, then were transitioned to producing juveniles with broodstock collected in-basin.

Increasing numbers of fish are now returning to these rivers, a portion of which is the product of natural spawning.

It appears the coho salmon are adapting to their new environments and founding local naturalized populations, a key message Council members heard during the presentation.

Nez Perce Tribe/Clearwater River

The construction of Lewiston Dam in 1927 on the mainstem of the Clearwater decimated coho returns. After the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s coho reintroduction effort from 1962 until 1968 failed, coho salmon were declared extinct in the entire Snake River Basin in 1984.

With the dam long-since removed (in 1973), the Nez Perce Tribe was eager to give coho reintroduction a try. The Clearwater Coho Restoration Plan Project began in 1994 as a result of a U.S. V. Oregon agreement between tribes, Idaho, Oregon and Washington, and federal agencies. In the agreement, surplus coho eggs from lower Columbia River hatcheries were to be used to reintroduce the species in the Clearwater subbasin.

The overall goal of the CCRP is to restore coho to the Clearwater River subbasin at levels of abundance and productivity to support sustainable runs and annual harvest.

Initially, the tribe released 630,000 coho parr into five streams on its reservation and within a few years those eggs were replaced with juveniles from adults that returned to the Clearwater. The tribe now releases 830,000 to 1.1 million smolts every year. Adult coho began returning in 1997.

The tribe’s goal is 15,000 returning coho adults, which would create sustainable runs for both tribal and non-tribal harvest. They reached their goal in 2014. The tribe is now trying to establish a naturally spawning population and expand the coho’s range to other Snake River tributaries.

Becky Johnson, Nez Perce Tribe Production Division Director, told Council members the coho reintroduction program shows “hatcheries are an effective tool in reintroducing and restoring an extirpated species,” stressing the importance of local broodstocks and stream acclimation.

“US vs. Oregon was where it started,” she said. “The purpose of the Management Agreement is to provide a framework within which the Parties may exercise their sovereign powers in a coordinated and systematic manner to protect, rebuild, and enhance upper Columbia River fish runs while providing harvests for both treaty Indian and non-treaty fisheries.”

“The Treaty Tribes did the heavy lifting,” she said.

Johnson said coho reintroduction program operates on a “shoestring budget” is funded annually with $392,000 from NOAA Fisheries’ Pacific Coast Salmon Recovery Fund and $125,000 from the Mitchell Act. The Nez Perce reintroduction is not part of the Council’s Fish and Wildlife Program and has received no funding from the Bonneville Power Administration.

Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation/Umatilla River

Jon Lovrak of the Umatilla Tribes told the Council that from 1995-2009 about 1.5 million coho smolts were released into the Umatilla River annually and about one million fish in years 2010-2015. Since 2015, about 500,000 smolts are released annually with the other 500,000 smolts reprogrammed for the Lostine/Grand Ronde River coho reintroduction project.

He said the 10-year average for adult coho returns to the Umatilla River is now at 4,478 fish, which takes into account the poor ocean conditions of 2015-2020 and the reduction in releases by half. Last year’s return was well over 5,000 fish.

Lovrak also pointed out smolt-to-adult returns rose when the project turned from acclimated fish (riverside ponds) compared to the early years of direct release.  

Since 2014 only Umatilla River origin broodstock has been utilized, which has reduced pre-spawn mortality.

Lostine River/Grande Ronde River

Historically, about 5,000 coho returned to northeast Oregon’s Lostine River, in the upper Grande Ronde River basin. Widespread use of weirs in the 1900s led to coho being extirpated by 1912.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Nez Perce Tribe launched in 2018 a five-year pilot program for the Lostine with the goal of returning about 540 adults.

The program uses lower Columbia River Tanner Creek coho stock that is collected at Bonneville Dam and raised at Cascade Hatchery.

About 500,000 smolts have been released each year. All fish are clipped.

About 3,200 of the Lostine program fish returned to Lower Granite Dam in 2021, with 85 of these fish trapped at a Lostine River weir, Kyle Bratcher, district ODFW biologist, told the Council.

Where were the fish going?

In 2020, nine redds were found in surveys of the Lostine, Wallowa, and Wenaha rivers, all tributaries of the Grande Ronde. All the redds were in the Lostine, which is a high country tributary of the upper Wallowa.

In 2021, biologists found 93 redds in the first survey of the lower Wallowa River and Grande Ronde River.

“The lower Wallowa near the mouth appears to be the core area,” Bratcher said. “It’s a challenge to get into the Lostine.”

He said documenting distribution of the coho is a work in progress, but there has been documentation of natural spawning and natural juveniles and adults.

A small recreation fishery of under 30 coho was opened in 2020 and 2021. Most are caught incidental to steelhead fishing.

A review of the pilot project will be available 2023 and will include recommendations.

Bratcher said under consideration are recommendations regarding assessment of trial acclimation, funding for localized broodstock collection and funding for monitoring.

He told Council members the program contributes to restoration of ecosystem function by providing nutrients for core spawning, contributes to fisheries outside the Snake River basin, and shows how hatchery fish can contribute to natural spawning and colonization.

But, he said, the program is “on a slow road due to funding.”

Yakima Nation/Mid-Columbia

Todd Newsome, fisheries scientist for the Yakama Nation, told Council members that coho counts in the Yakima River reached zero by 1985. The following year transfers from lower Columbia River hatcheries began under U.S. v OR.

In 2021, about 15,000 coho returned to the Yakima River.

But with the new, high-tech Melvin R. Sampson Hatchery, the Tribe will begin to use only natural origin adults for reintroduction.

Newsome said it will be “a phased approach to fill all historic coho habitat with progeny of natural origin coho, all the while providing large numbers of hatchery coho for tribal and non tribal fisheries.”

The Yakama Nation fisheries department is also working to bring coho back to mid-Columbia rivers.

Historically, 6,000 to 7,000 coho returned to the Wenatchee River; 9,000-13,000 to the Entiat, and 23,000 to 31,000 to the Methow.

For the Wenatchee and Methow rivers, a reintroduction program was initiated in 1996 with lower Columbia River stock.

The program is now using localized Mid-Columbia broodstock — Wenatchee program: 8th generation MCR stock; Methow program, 7th generation MCR stock.

Last year, 65,000 Methow and Wenatchee adult coho were counted at Rock Island/Rocky Reach dams.

Cory Kamphaus of Yakama Nation Fisheries told the Council the project benefits include: provide increased cultural and socio-economic value to the region; opportunity to study the local adaptation process and at what rate it can occur; supplying marine nutrients at the onset of winter; and increase abundance of a keystone species within ecological communities.

Guy Norman, Washington Council member, agreed there was “some skepticism” in the 1990s. Yes, the tribes did the heavy lifting and had a long-term vision using adaptive management.”

Jeff Allen of Idaho, chair of the Council Fish and Wildlife Committee, called coho reintroduction “a very good example of a successful program.”