Eighty years after the construction of Grand Coulee Dam blocked migratory fish, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation released 30 adult summer Chinook above the largest Columbia River dam.

While the Aug. 16 release—and others this summer—will have little environmental impact on the 150-mile reservoir created by the dam, it conjured memories of the Ceremony of Tears the tribes held decades before to mourn the loss of salmon, and offered hope that future generations may one day see the salmon return of their own volition to the upper Columbia River.

“We have strong prayers today, because our ancestors, our elders back at the Ceremony of Tears, they also had strong prayers that one day we would see these fish return back to the river, back to our people,” Colville Tribal Chairman Rodney Cawston told a crowd of nearly 300 people who came to participate in the historic release. “A lot of good people are working on this, and I hope and pray that I can see this in my lifetime, and definitely in my children’s lifetime,” he said.

Tribal elders and children joined many Colville leaders representing its 12 bands of tribes, along with representatives from other tribes, including the Spokane Tribe of Indians and the Okanagan Nation Alliance in Canada.

Cawston said that with a loss of the salmon runs, the tribes also lost a way of life that was based on a salmon culture. He spoke of the annual gathering at Kettle Falls—now under water after Grand Coulee Dam inundated one of the Columbia’s largest fisheries—and the many tribes that gathered there each year to catch and share fish, heed directions from the salmon chief, teach their ways to their young people, and pay respect for this resource that returned year after year.

He acknowledged that all of the upper Columbia River tribes have long worked together to bring salmon back to the upper river. After years of scientific study, the United Upper Columbia Tribes, or UCUT, released an analysis in June finding that the technology exists for both adult and juvenile salmon passage at Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams, and that hundreds of miles of suitable spawning and rearing habitat above the dams are waiting for them.

“This is a very sacred time for us to be able to see these fish return back into these waters. But there’s still so many things we still need to know,” Cawston said. “We need to know how these fish will survive, where they will go. We need to track them—they’re going to be PIT-tagged so we can actually do that research and monitoring, because the waters here today are not the same as they were 80 years ago.”

Several tribal leaders spoke during the ceremony until a truck with the salmon arrived at the boat launch on the Columbia River, south of Keller. Those gathered formed two long lines between the truck and the river and clacked rocks together. Joined by drummers, they were calling the salmon home.

Then, one-by-one, the salmon were dipped from the truck and placed into a rubber tube which passed from hand to hand until the sack with a wriggling 10- to 15-pound salmon reached the river. There, a tribal member stepped up to release it. Elders were steadied by friends or family so they could participate in the passing and releasing of the salmon. Children waded into the water and reached down to pat each fish before it quickly swam away.

Casey Baldwin, lead scientist in UCUT’s study, said although each salmon has a PIT tag for tracking, tribal biologists aren’t expecting to learn much from these ceremonial releases. The salmon are unlisted summer Chinook, taken from surplus stock at the Wells Hatchery several miles downstream. They may be detected at the dams if they fall back and try to return to the hatchery, he noted. But with no salmon passage, there is little reason for PIT tag detecting equipment in the upper Columbia.

The salmon also have the opportunity to spawn in a nearby tributary, such as the San Poil River, rich with gravel beds, Baldwin noted. Other salmon are being released above Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams this summer with acoustic tags that will be more useful in a tracking study to help determine which release sites are best, he said. “Right now, it’s just about getting the fish out there and reconnecting people with the salmon,” Baldwin added.

UCUT Executive Director DR Michel, who participated in the ceremony, told NW Fishletter the release does not yet mark the start of the second phase of the study, which was presented to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council in June and later sent to the Independent Scientific Advisory Board for review.

But, he said, it is one of the key steps leading into Phase 2, which will involve interim passage facilities and experimental pilot releases of salmon for further studies. Phase 1 included an assessment of habitat, risks, best stocks for reintroduction, passage facilities and technologies, life cycle modeling, and cost and financing considerations.

“Technologies exist to effectively pass salmon over these dams,” a handout from the ceremony states. “Floating surface collectors gather large number of juvenile fish in highly fluctuating reservoirs, passing them downstream of high head dams. WHOOSHH technology uses a pressurized tube to gently move adults over dams. These technologies have been tested at other dams and require little power and water to function.”

In late August, Whooshh Innovations received a final permit to begin testing some improvements to its fish passage technology at Chief Joseph Dam.

Michael Messina, market development director of Whooshh, told NW Fishletter that a Sept. 10 demonstration is open to the public.

Located 50 miles downstream from Grand Coulee Dam, Chief Joseph Dam has no fish passage system and is the farthest location in the Columbia River where salmon and steelhead can migrate before being blocked.

Whooshh has been working with the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deploy its Whooshh Passage Portal system below the dam. It will test it on summer and fall Chinook, which are not listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The system includes Whoosh’s Fish Migrator—called a “fish tube” in a recent video that went viral. Messina said fish will not be transported and released over the dam, but the tube will stretch from a barge at the base of the dam to the top and back down again as part of its testing. Also called the fish cannon, the tube is designed to safely transport fish over dams. It has been extensively tested and is in use at several locations.

Whooshh will also test its volitional entry system—called the FishFaucet—which attracts fish to swim into the tube on their own instead of being fed into the tube, as seen on many of the system’s videos. And it will test its Fish Recognition and GateKeeper systems, which use artificial intelligence to recognize and sort fish. The sorting system separates different species, hatchery fish from wild, or invasive species from native.

Whooshh also received permission this summer to set up equipment at one of the fish ladders at Bonneville Dam, where it has gathered more than 8,000 images of anadromous fish to help train the artificial intelligence recognition capability, Messina said.

The demonstration of the entire system will be from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Sept. 10 at Chief Joseph Dam, just east of the hatchery, 38 Half Sun Way in Bridgeport.

The Colville Tribes have been working for decades to bring salmon back to their reservation.

Colleen Cawston was one of many Colville tribal members who came to participate in the Aug. 16 ceremony. She stood by the water’s edge with her daughter, Clarissa Cawston, her grandchildren Zaley Laramie and Gavin Marris, and her husband Rodney Cawston, the tribe’s chairman.

Twenty years earlier, Colleen serving as the tribe’s chairwoman, had worked to restore salmon in Columbia River tributaries, and had pushed federal agencies for passage at Chief Joseph Dam. She said the ceremony releasing adult salmon into the Columbia River above Grand Coulee Dam brought tears to her eyes.

“But my tears are much different from the tears of my ancestors,” she noted, saying their tears were of sadness and anguish, while hers were tears of joy.

K.C. Mehaffey covers fish issues for Clearing Up, and is editor of the NW Fishletter. She joined the NewsData writing team in February 2018. From lawsuits to scientific studies, she is enjoying the deep dive into the Columbia Basin's many fish topics.