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Salmon spawn in San Poil River


Last updated 11/10/2020 at 9:21am

A redd of chinook salmon observed in the San Poil River. - from CTFW video

Chinook salmon have successfully spawned in the San Poil River for the first time in decades after Chief Joseph Dam and Grand Coulee Dam have "prevented the migration of salmon into the northern reaches of the Columbia River and its tributaries for nearly seven decades," The Tribal Tribune reported Oct. 29.

In August, Colville Tribal Fish and Wildlife trapped and hauled 100 adult chinook salmon from Wells Fish Hatchery and released them into the San Poil River, a tributary of the Columbia, at West Fork located between Keller and Republic. 

The project used "naive adult salmon," which don't have a traditional migratory path in waters they have not been in before.

"Most of the chinook stayed in the area and a lot of them spawned," CTFW Senior Research Scientist Casey Baldwin told the Tribune. "We were able to document 36 redds (spawning nests) in about a 6-mile reach from West Fork downstream. The fish held there through the late summer and started spawning in October. It looks like we had really good survival and conversion to spawning."

The results show "a positive indication that transporting these naive adults, who haven't experienced a particular river system in their life history, that they can be successful at surviving and at spawning, or at least building a nest," Baldwin said. "We know they spawned, we don't know how successful they'll be at pulling off the next generation, but we know they survived and they spawned. It's a very positive outcome."

Salmon typically swim to the ocean after being born, then return to the river where they were born to spawn themselves, which is made impossible by the Chief Joseph Dam and Grand Coulee Dam unless something is done to allow for salmon passage. 

According to Baldwin, all 100 of the chinook released were fitted with PIT tags, which release data when the fish pass over previously installed arrays in the river system.

Most of the salmon appear to be staying near where they were released, although some have swum further up Gold Creek, and some may have gone further down the San Poil. 

"We don't know if a small portion of the fish dropped down into somewhere else in the San Poil to spawn; we did not have the resources to survey the whole river," Baldwin said. "We could have also had some mortality. We are also looking at whether any fish left the San Poil, but based on the number of redds, the number of observations of fish, it appears the majority of them stayed up there and spawned."

CTFW also has taken genetic samples from each salmon, which will be used to create genetic profiles of the salmon to potentially track any offspring caught downriver.

The project came together through existing tribal funds and limited staff hours the Tribune reported, citing Baldwin. 

In July, the department released an additional 50 chinook salmon, fitted with acoustic tags, into Lake Roosevelt from Geezer Beach near Grand Coulee Dam and from Northport, but Baldwin reports the data for those fish has not yet been analyzed.

Over winter, Baldwin noted, both studies will be fully analyzed and compiled into reports.

In 2019, the Upper Columbia United Tribes, which includes the Colville Tribes, Coeur d'Alene Tribe, the Kalispel Tribe, the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho and the Spokane Tribe, published a feasibility study regarding the reintroduction of salmon above the dams.

That study, which was a first phase in salmon introduction, looked at the current dam operations, the existing habitat above the dams, donor stock availability, the risk to current fish species above the dam, and technologies used to move salmon over high-head dams. It also included a life-cycle model that allowed evaluation of the potential benefits of reintroduction in terms of returning adults that could be harvested and allowed to spawn.

Moving forward, Baldwin noted the tribes and their partners are looking at future studies as part of the second phase of reintroduction.

An "important area of emphasis will be studying the downstream migration of juveniles in the reservoirs and around the dams," Baldwin said. "Although small studies such as this show promise and progress, it is apparent that there is a lot of work to do to return salmon to their historic habitat upstream of Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams.  It will take time and patience to see it implemented in a big way."

"This news made my tim'ne (heart) a little lighter today," Watershed Program Manager Douglas R. Marconi, Jr. of the tribes' Environmental Trust Department wrote in an email sharing the article, using some words from the Nez Perce language. "So many things going on in our world, it's humbling to be reminded by our salmon relatives that they will return as our Tamalwit (sacred laws) tell us."

Salmon spawn in the San Poil River - CTFW video

"Our program has been in the business of speaking for and protecting our waters since before I was born," he wrote. "From our permitting and compliance work, to watershed restoration and scientific research, we have helped restore the relationship [between humans, salmon, and water] by ensuring strong water quality standards, and access to in-channel habitat."

"Our teachings tell us that c'us (water) be honored first. Without water we would have nothing! Let us be reminded of previous people, staff and projects that came before us. Our current, ongoing, and collective heartwork has truly contributed to the space and time for our water relatives to return."



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