Big run of coho in Umatilla River

By Samantha Bates
Pendleton, Oregon (AP) 11-09

Bronson, dressed from head to toe in rubber coveralls and a rain jacket, wrestled a 2-foot-long coho salmon from the elevator tank. The fish’s red sides flashed in the morning light as it slid along a wet metal table.

“Coho male, non-tag!” he called.

The fish glided a short distance to Ken Loffink, who sent it down a tube to a holding pond, later to be released just above Three Mile Dam. Meanwhile, Ron Fossek recorded the fish’s species and gender on a checklist.

The men were cataloging fish coming through the dam bypass and sorting out fall chinooks for breeding at the hatchery.

The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife count and breed fish for continued runs in the Umatilla River.

Their process goes like clockwork, Bronson calling out the types of fish – chinook, coho and steelhead – Loffink sending the fish to the appropriate pond and Fossek taking notes. When they do find a chinook appropriate for the breeding stock, Mike McCloud gives it shots of antibiotic and fungal antibiotic. Then Loffink sends it through another tube to the hatchery runs.

Aside from a fish occasionally getting rowdy and splashing Bronson in the face, it all seems fairly routine.

What isn’t routine this year is how many fish they’re counting.

Bronson, who is a fish passage operations project leader for the reservation, said this year will likely be the second-largest run of coho salmon in the fisheries program’s history. The program started in the 1980s to bring fish runs back to the Umatilla after a 70-year absence.

The smallest recorded run of cohos through Three Mile Dam was 529 in 1992, Bronson said. The largest run was in 2001, with 22,872.

So far this year Bronson and his team have counted 12,504 coho. The spawning season will last through the end of November.

Last Friday they counted 239, and that was a relatively slow day. They made it through all the fish in four five-minute long counting and sorting periods.

The fish passage facility collects all the fish in a 24-hour period and holds them until Bronson and the team arrive each morning. They then lift the fish into smaller tanks and anesthetize them to run the fish through the process. The team does its thing, counting and sorting. After they’re done, the coho and steelhead are released into the river above the dam through a valve, where fish spew out with water and continue upstream.

Coho they’ve counted have been caught as far upstream as Mission Bridge, Bronson said. He know’s he’s counted them because the adult fish can’t get past the dam without going through the fisheries’ sorting and counting process.

While they counted a little more than 200 Friday, some days have been much more intense. On Oct. 20, the team counted 2,220 coho. Bronson said the team was counting until 4 p.m. that day.

The crew at Three Mile Dam weren’t the only ones noticing the big fish runs. On Saturday afternoon a group of people stood on the Eighth Street bridge in Pendleton, watching the coho glide upstream.

Just upstream, Tommy Satterwhite had been on the river for about four hours.

“There’s quite a lot in the water out here,” he said. Between the gravel bar he stood on and the south bank, fins of salmon sharked by in the shallow water. “I’m trying to get a good one before the season’s over.”

Downstream, about four blocks west of Main Street, two more fisherman tried their luck as coho sloshed past them.

Robert Goin, who was standing on the south shore, said it had been a tough day. He said his equipment was too small for the large fish.

“I’ve lost $15 worth of lures,” he said.

Like Satterwhite, he seemed to be waiting for the right fish. He said he’d caught three earlier that day and let them all go. The smallest one was about nine pounds, he said.

Loffink, who is a fish passage biologist with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the big coho returns reflect the good ocean conditions. Like other salmon, the coho start as freshwater fish, migrate to the ocean where they mature, and come back to the same fresh waterways, such as the Umatilla, where they were born to spawn, mate, lay eggs and die.

The fish reflect the amount of effort they put into this latter migration. Many of them hosted white spots, marks of a fungus. Bronson said so much of their energy is put into spawning and mating, everything else comes in second.

While there have been 12,504 coho through Three Mile Dam so far this year, there have been 5,204 fall chinook and 884 summer steelhead.

“The chinook numbers are good, but not as robust as the coho, it’s the same for the Columbia,” Loffink said.

“This year we’ll expect the second-highest steelhead returns, too, but the chinook aren’t doing as well,” Bronson said.

Both Loffink and Bronson were unable to answer why some runs come back with more fish than others.

“We really can’t evaluate that,” Bronson said. “There are so many other factors with ocean survivability.”

Meaning there is so much that happens while these migrating fish spend time in the ocean, it’s hard to definitively say what will cause a better run. The men are able to predict the return runs by counting the jacks, immature fish, coming through the dams the year before. Because of good returns on jacks last year, they were able to predict a big coho run this year.