BRIDGEPORT – Will the salmon pass the Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee Dams in 2019?
“If (the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife) hangs in there with us,” said Colville tribal Natural Resources director Cody Desautel, “we should have fish above the dam in August.”
The tribe has explored using a salmon cannon by Whooshh Innovations as a method of fish passage. More studies, according to Colville tribal Fish & Wildlife director Randall Friedlander, found five out of 20 steelhead had Upper Columbia ancestry — although they hadn’t been there in nearly 80 years.
“The dams blocked the fish, but the fish didn’t get the memo,” he quipped.
Retired Colville Tribal Fish & Wildlife employee Rick Desautel was on-hand and expressed concern over survival rates in a body of water that currently has an emphasis on the removal of Northern Pike.
“In taking salmon above Grand Coulee Dam, you’re potentially sending adult salmon up into potential spawning beds for Northern Pike, adding another 200-something miles of river that the salmon smolt would have to encounter coming down heading for the ocean. With the different surveys with the predator fish, what kind of survival rate might come out there?”
“We model survival rates based on known survival in the downstream breaches,” responded CCT research scientist Casey Baldwin. “In Lake Roosevelt, we apply a slightly higher mortality rate. But we don’t have any specific studies that tell us what the mortality rates are going to be. Certainly it’s going to be a challenge if we don’t get out in front of the pike in the next couple of years. I would argue, the best way to do that is to start releasing fish.”
Upper Columbia United Tribes’ Executive Director D.R. Michel said it's the impacted tribes' responsibility to make salmon passage happen.
“The fish, the salmon have shown resiliency," he said. "Everything we’ve done to them, those fish are still coming up river. They get to the base of Chief Joe (dam), circle for a couple weeks … They’re looking for a way around that facility.
“That desire, whatever’s in those fish is still there. This fish, this resource is looking for an opportunity again.”
Michel, 59, added the salmon runs of old may not occur in his lifetime.
“It’s our responsibility to ensure that for the kids,” he said. “I may never see it but my grandkids or great grands will have those things that were taken from us. This year is the 79th anniversary with that blockage of Grand Coulee. That’s too long. Let’s all continue to work together and put the pressure on the folks that we need to put the pressure on.”
Colville tribal elder Bill Timentwa led the prayer for the Colville Tribes’ First Salmon Ceremony.
“Always pray when you come down here to fish for the salmon,” he said, “and they will tell their family members. I pray the salmon continue to return so they can take care of us.”
The projected 20-year-low salmon forecast was on the mind’s of many during a critical year in which the tribe hopes to make a push for salmon into the upper Columbia River.
“We keep hearing about the fish runs wavering year after year,” Colville Business Council member Richard Moses said. “It saddens me because I think we’re going to have a low fish run this year.”
“The Colville Tribe, the salmon have sure struggled over the years,” followed Colville Tribal Fish and Wildlife director Randall Friedlander. “The dams went in. There’s been impacts. We’ve made improvements over time, and we’re starting to see more salmon come back. … Overall, the ocean conditions are not as good right now. Although we’re producing them, and many others like it, it is hard.”
Throughout the day, several officials from the tribes, and elsewhere, spoke about the salmon numbers.
Kirk Truscott of CCTFW presented a pre-season estimate of the salmon return forecast. He marked in red boxes the Chinook and Sockeye numbers: Spring Chinook in the Upper Columbia (11,200); Wild Spring Chinook in Upper Columbia (2,100); Summer Chinook in Upper Columbia (35,900); and Sockeye in the Okanogan River (74,500).
He said “it’s not uncommon for the estimate to be off by 100 percent.” Afterwards, he elaborated on the numbers and the estimates.
“We put out about 5,000 pit tags, and we got 14 over Bonneville Dam,” he said. “Do those represent the entire population? Things look better than they did pre-season. we’ve got about 1/3 of the female equivalent for our first stocking already. We’re encouraged but we still don’t have them all yet and we’re still early in the return.”
But, he added, if the broodstock does not return in the numbers projected or needed, it could result in immediate constraints on the tribe’s fishing opportunity.
“Our production levels will be down so we won’t meet our production levels and that affects future fisheries,” he said. “We’ll have fewer fish returning in years four, five, six.”
CCTFW invited tribal member and author Randy Lewis, of Wenatchee, to speak.
He started by explaining the importance of the Bridgeport area.
“This was a real hodgepodge of tribes,” he said. “This was a big, huge trading area, a real crossroads for traffic.”
He referenced the late Nisqually activist Billy Frank, Jr. on the importance of salmon to the Indian people.
“Save the salmon and you’ll save the people,” Lewis said. “There’s so much in that. It’s more than just saving Indians, it’s saving everyone. If you understand what salmon do for the environment, and what happens when you take that keystone species out of the element.
“I’ll tell you what happens, it looks like Douglas County — you lose your watershed. They lose their bodies, die, go back to that soil. That’s what creates the forest. You take that out, those species, they start disappearing.”
Lewis recalled a story his parents told him.
“When they blocked the salmon with Grand Coulee Dam and followed by Chief Joseph Dam, mental illness started appearing in our people,” approximately 20 years later, he said. “You cannot take 15,000 to 20,000 years of a diet from people without major changes taking place.
Before the event ended, the first salmon caught, filleted and cooked, was passed out as a sort of communion, according to Colville Tribal Fish and Wildlife director Randall Friedlander. As he made fillets out of the first salmon, he sent an employee to the water with the remains to put back in the river.
“We’ve been taught al the bones, remains have to go back in the river,” he said. “It’s another way we show respect to the salmon.”
Jill Smail visit
Two days before the First Salmon Ceremony, Jill Smail — a negotiator for the Columbia River Treaty — visited the facility, according to the tribe’s Land & Property director Cody Desautel.
On Wednesday, a CBC press release was disbursed.
“We’re very pleased that Ms. Smail came to our reservation to see for herself why the Colville Tribes and other Northwest Indian Nations must be part of the Columbia River Treaty negotiations,” Colville Business Council chairman Rodney Cawston said.
The Colville Tribe’s Natural Resources director Cody Desautel talked about Smail’s visit.
“There’s just a ton of things happening on the river right now,” he said. “It’s a very exciting time. A lot of opportunity, a lot of progress is being made on fish passage.”
Kettle Falls Ceremony
The First Salmon Ceremony for Kettle Falls will take place June 22, according to CCTF&W officials.
Because the salmon cannot travel past the Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee Dam, the tribe has had to get creative in how to get a salmon to the ceremony before it spoils.
“In the past, we’d have to pick up a frozen salmon (in Oregon) and bring it back in order to hold the ceremony,” Friedlander said. “As we’ve gotten more fish coming back here (at Chief Joseph), we’ve been able to almost pull them directly out of the river. They’re coming up the ladder, they’re in the trap area, then they go in the trap.”