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NW Fishletter #387, Nov. 5, 2018

[6] Yakama Nation Takes Next Step In Mid-Columbia Coho Reintroduction

There are no rulebooks when it comes to rebuilding anadromous fish runs that have stopped returning to rivers and streams where they once flourished. So when the Yakama Nation decided more than 20 years ago to reintroduce coho to a few tributaries in the mid-Columbia River, there were a lot of questions.

Now, after two decades of work, adaptive management, careful planning and scientific approvals, along with major commitments for funding, the tribe is ready to take a major step toward its final goal--a sustainable population of naturally returning coho in the Methow and Wenatchee river basins.

A program that began with releasing a small number of hatchery-raised coho from the lower Columbia River in 1996 is now on target to send out 2 million smolts from parents that returned to the mid-Columbia on their own, and to acclimate them in several local rivers and streams before releasing them next spring.

The program began with funds from the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), and over the past decade received additional support from the Chelan, Douglas and Grant county PUDs.

Cory Kamphaus, the Yakama's northern ceded area production supervisor for the coho program, said the tribe's reintroduction strategy has largely used the process of adaptation, and relied on existing facilities. Using a nearby coho stock from the lower Columbia River, the program began rebuilding a run by releasing the hatchery-raised juveniles in Methow and Wenatchee river basins, and then integrating progeny of the adults that made it back.

"While we started with lower river coho, we're five generations removed from that stock," he said. "These are a locally-returning brood. We have completely eliminated the use of lower stock for our program. And we're showing a continual divergence from that founding stock."

According to the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, in the 1900s, between 120,000 and 165,000 coho returned to the upper and mid-Columbia River every year, spawning in the Yakima, Wenatchee, Entiat, Methow and Spokane river watersheds.

These returns included about 30,000 coho that returned to the Methow River basin, making it the most populous anadromous fish in that watershed. But several factors--impassable dams, overfishing, unscreened irrigation diversions, degraded habitat and hatchery policies--eliminated them from these watersheds.

Kamphaus said the first few years after releasing hatchery coho in the Methow River, beginning in 1996, didn't appear to be very successful. "The adults weren't returning at very high rates," he said. "They weren't adapted to their new release environment, and they also had all these hydro facilities to pass through," and a much longer journey compared to their usual return to the lower Columbia River.

In 1999, while continuing a small release program in the Methow Valley, the tribe decided to shift its emphasis to the Wenatchee River basin, which removed two dams and significant distance from their migration. For the next few years, they released juvenile coho from the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery, hoping to reprogram them to imprint on the Wenatchee. And within a few years, the coho began returning at high enough rates to develop a local broodstock. "That was the take-off point," Kamphaus said.

It's also when the real work began. Guided by the Mid-Columbia Technical Work Group, and through a series of evaluations by the Independent Scientific Review Panel, the tribe was able to demonstrate that their program was feasible.

This included showing that despite the use of a hatchery fish that return to a hatchery near Bonneville Dam in the lower Columbia River, over time the coho that did return would produce offspring adapted to the new conditions. These new conditions include a much longer journey to their spawning grounds, and the ability to produce naturally raised progeny.

This feasibility phase addressed three main uncertainties--whether returning coho, which are not listed under the Endangered Species Act, would interact with ESA-listed species that also spawned in the Methow and Wenatchee basins; whether coho would reproduce naturally; and whether a local broodstock could be developed from lower Columbia River stocks.

After developing a master plan and responding to ISRP concerns, the panel found last October that the project meets scientific review criteria.

Kamphaus said after developing local broodstock in nearby hatcheries, the tribe is now ready to shift from a predominately hatchery-produced broodstock toward a more naturally spawning coho population in the Methow.

"The emphasis during the Natural Production Implementation Phase of the coho master plan is to move most of the production out to multiple springtime acclimation sites and really redistribute those juveniles so that returning adults seed habitat for them to be successful," he said.

Next spring, in the Methow Valley, a million juvenile fish will be released, and 80 percent of them will be from natural acclimation sites, he said.

In the Wenatchee basin, where the program continues to develop and refine the broodstock toward eventual transition into the upper watershed by targeting preferred habitats, one million juveniles continue to be released yearly, primarily from the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery and from select natural acclimation sites in the upper watershed.

Long-term funding is also coming together.

The BPA has committed to spending $3.3 million each year for both the Yakima basin and mid-Columbia coho reintroduction programs in the extended Columbia Basin Fish Accords, said BPA spokesman David Wilson.

He said Bonneville is providing 60 percent of the mid-Columbia's program needs, and three PUDs will contribute 40 percent of the funding and the use of critical adult trapping and collection sites, and juvenile rearing facilities in both basins.

This year, Grant and Chelan county PUDs each signed new 15-year agreements with the Yakama Nation, with Grant committing to a total of almost $14 million, and Chelan agreeing to spend $9.7 million.

Douglas County PUD is raising 3.7 percent of the coho smolts needed in the Methow River basin. This year, the PUD is raising 37,000 coho at its Wells Hatchery, and has committed to helping with production until its Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) license for Wells Dam expires in 2054, said PUD spokeswoman Meaghan Vibbert.

The support from the PUDs helps them fulfill requirements for coho in their FERC licenses.

Alene Underwood, Chelan PUD's fish and wildlife manager, said that although coho had been extirpated from the mid-Columbia region, their FERC license recognized that coho might be reintroduced, and so the PUD committed to "no net impact" from its two projects, Rocky Reach and Rock Island dams. That translates to a combined 91 percent juvenile and adult survival rate, 7 percent in hatchery mitigation, and 2 percent in habitat funding.

Underwood said the agreement with the Yakamas satisfies all of its coho obligations for both projects for the next 15 years.

Both Chelan and Grant noted that the agreements give them, and their ratepayers, long-term certainty for meeting environmental stewardship responsibilities required by their federal licenses.

Grant customers get an added benefit, according to Tom Dresser, the utility's Fish and Wildlife manager.

In an email to NW Fishletter, Dresser noted, "Based on Grant PUD's commitment to fund coho, the Yakama Nation and other state, local and federal agencies that provide oversight agreed to change the required survival-evaluation schedule [the survival studies we have to and/or pay for ourselves] from every five years to every 10 years for each fish species [salmon and steelhead]. That means an estimated $9.8 million in savings for Grant PUD over the 15-year agreement."

Yakama production supervisor Kamphaus said, "I think the 15-year commitment [from PUDs] is a result of the success the program has had. We've been able to show this program is viable."

The tribe's goal, he said, is to see a minimum of 1,500 adult fish returning to spawning grounds in the Methow and Wenatchee river basins. It may sound like a low number, he said, but it takes time to work your way back from zero.

On Oct. 4, when coho were still making their way up the Columbia River toward both the Wenatchee and Methow rivers, Kamphaus said this species continues to amaze him. In a year when forecasting predicted there would only be between 2,000 to 3,000 coho above Rock Island Dam, given poor juvenile survivals and ocean conditions, there were already twice as many returns, and counting. -K.C. Mehaffey

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NW Fishletter is produced by NewsData LLC.
Publisher/Editor-in-Chief: Mark Ohrenschall, Editor: K.C. Mehaffey
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