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Salmon Spawning for the First Time in 80 Years in the Upper Columbia River

Posted by on January 27, 2021 in Environment, Wildlife with 0 Comments

Tribal biologists have confirmed that chinook salmon are spawning in the upper-Columbia River system in Washington state for the first time in 80 years.

The discovery of 36 “redds” (where a female salmon deposits her eggs) along a prime eight-mile spawning stretch of a tributary of the Columbia called the Sanpoil River confirmed the Colville Tribe’s suspicions.

It’s the culmination of decades of dreaming, and years of work, which one can hear in the words of Crystal Conant, a Colville tribal member of the Arrow Lakes and SanPoil bands when she spoke to Eli Francovich at Spokesman

“I was shocked at first, then I was just overcome with complete joy…I don’t know that I have the right words to even explain the happiness and the healing,” she said.

The Confederated Tribes of the Colville System have been planning and researching how it would be possible to restore salmon populations to the river systems above two dams built in the 1930s and ’50s which prevented the fish from reaching the higher levels of the river system to spawn, as they had done for generations.

A long time coming (home)

Grand Coulee Dam, US Bureau of Reclamation 

In blocking the salmon from returning to the upper reaches of the Sanpoil River, many of the tribes there were prevented from carrying out fundamental practices of their culture, including the “salmon songs” which called the fish back from the ocean, and spearfishing around Kettle Falls, over which the river tumbled and roiled as it contested against quartz boulders.

The Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams don’t include fish ladders, and so in August, the Colville Tribes released 100 salmon 35 miles upstream of the two dams in an attempt to see if they would survive and spawn.

They outfitted electronic trackers to the fish so they would be able to observe their movements. Over the summer and fall, contrary to some predictions that the fish would just up and leave, the hatchery-born salmon spread out and began to spawn.

But of course, the major challenge to an otherwise superbly plausible restoration effort is whether small salmon can cross the Columbia River reservoir created by the dam, pass through the hydropower infrastructure, move out to sea, eat, grow, and return again.

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