Coho returning to Central Washington streams

By Philip Ferolito
Yakima, Washington (AP) Feb. 2010

Record coho returns have Yakama Nation biologists poised for the next step in recovery: getting the fish into the uppermost reaches of Central Washington’s biggest watersheds.

It’s been nearly a century since the last cohos swam beyond the main flows of the Yakima, Wenatchee and Methow rivers and into creeks, such as the Ahtanum, Wenatchee and Wide Hollow.

“That’s the key, getting these coho out of the main stem and into the tributaries where they historically were,” said tribal fish biologist Todd Newsome, who is overseeing the Yakima Basin project. “If they just hunker down in the main stem, then we have all our eggs in one basket.”

Sacred to the Yakama and once part of a major industry, the silver-sided fish with dark blue backs have not had an easy go during the last century.

Starting about 100 years ago, irrigation, heavy fishing and ruined habitat annihilated coho runs in these smaller creeks and streams. By 1985, the fish was extinct in the Yakima River.

But an effort headed by the Yakama Nation to resurrect coho runs is proving successful.

This fall alone saw roughly 22,000 coho pass Rock Island Dam near Wenatchee, a huge leap from the mere 12 that passed that same area in 1999. And in the Yakima River Basin, more than 10,000 returned this fall.

Historic returns in the Yakima River ranged from 44,000 to 120,000.

For the first time in about 70 years, a coho fishing season was opened this fall in the Wenatchee and Methow basins, as well as in the lower Yakima River.

“We’re definitely excited about it, but we’re not overly excited about it,” said Newsome. “We want to see over 13,000 (returning coho) a year in the Yakima Basin.”

Starting from scratch, biologists began rebuilding coho runs in the mid-1990s by using hatchery-born fish from different areas.

On Tuesday, roughly 75,000 coho were trucked from the Prosser hatchery and dumped into a pond near the lower Naches River near Gleed. After journeying to the Pacific, they are expected to return in one to three years to spawn and rebuild a natural run, biologists said.

In the smaller Rattlesnake and Cowiche creeks west of Yakima, roughly 10,000 coho smolts were left for a month in a 20-foot aluminum tank filled with creek water before they were released. It’s hoped that the exposure to water from those creeks becomes imprinted on the fish and they return there to spawn.

Hatchery coho are starting to spawn in the wild, biologists said.

Of the roughly 22,000 that returned to the Wenatchee and Methow basins this year, about 2,000 were taken for hatchery spawning. The rest were left to spawn on their own or were caught, said Yakama biologist Tom Scribner, who is overseeing the Wenatchee and Methow basin projects.

Work to get coho into the upper reaches of those basins is awaiting an environmental impact statement to assure the fish’s presence won’t have adverse effects on other species or the overall habitat, Scribner said.

A feasibility study shows promise in developing spawning ponds in those upper watersheds, he said.

“The goal is to get a natural coho population that can sustain a significant fishery,” Scribner said.

Past efforts to restore coho fell short of rebuilding runs in the smaller creeks and streams, he added.

“There was no direct effort to restore coho -- they were just limping along for years,” he said. “They were just kind of released and no one cared about what happened to them.”

There is much more to the recovery project than just coho, biologists say.

Steelhead often spawn in the same areas and benefit from the nutrients brought by returning coho. Vegetation is improved and baby steelhead feed on the same insects that feed on coho carcasses.

“The entire health of the watershed is kind of wrapped into how these fish recover,” Newsome said.

Increasing the number of salmon in area basins also means there’s more to go around for tribal fishermen and sportsmen alike.

Yakamas not only regard salmon as sacred, but the fish is a staple in their diet and a livelihood for many fisherman in the 10,000-member tribe.

Fish biologists attribute the returns partly to good ocean conditions and a concerted effort by many to improve irrigation practices and reduce the amount of pollutants going into the river.

They also say funding from an accord over salmon restoration struck with the Bonneville Power Administration last year and funding from public utility districts in Chelan and Grant counties helped.

It costs about $2.5 million a year to run the coho projects in the Wenatchee, Methow and Yakima basins.

“I think people have become more aware of the salmon problem,” said Steve Parker, director of Yakama Nation Fisheries. “It’s a lot of people doing a lot of small things that improve the environment for salmon.”