Northwest tribes are exultant to see nearly a million fall Chinook salmon returning to the Columbia River this year, nearly 400,000 more than have returned since the Bonneville Dam was built 75 years ago.
With a month still left in the run, said the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission in a media release, more than 920,000 adult and jack fall Chinook had already come up the river. Among the record numbers cited: On September 9 alone, 63,780 fall Chinook were counted crossing the dam, the Fish Commission said. Chinook also returned to tributaries in the 140 miles of river downstream, adding to the huge run, the commission said.
The abundant, historic run is due to several factors, the commission said, some of which began between two and five years ago. River flows were high in spring, when the juvenile fish migrated to the ocean back then. In addition juvenile fish have spilled over dams, ocean conditions have been good, and numerous ongoing projects have been undertaken to improve the fishes’ ability to pass by dams and exist in their spawning habitat. Higher survival of hatchery-produced fish also contributes to the historic numbers, said the commission.
“The abundance of this year’s fall Chinook run is the perfect example of what this region needs to focus on and how we all benefit from strong returns,” said Paul Lumley, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, in the statement. “Partnerships and collaboration are rebuilding this run. Focusing on rebuilding abundance allows the region to move beyond unproductive allocation fights and puts fish back on to the spawning grounds.”
In addition, an abundance of jacks, three-year-olds and four-year-olds are harbingers of a potentially big return next year as well, Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission biologist Joe Hymer told The Columbian.
Salmon experts, including those at the commission, cautioned that the work was not over.
“You can't lose sight of the fact that there are 13 distinct populations of salmon that remain at risk,” said Joseph Bogaard, executive director of the conservation group Save Our Wild Salmon, to the Los Angeles Times. Those species in the Columbia and Snake rivers are listed as either threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act, he said.
Indeed, recent studies have shown that overall in the region, salmon habitat is deteriorating faster than it can be restored.
And even as Chinook shattered records, the Technical Advisory Committee, made up of managers of state, tribal and federal fisheries, noted that returns of summer steelhead, fall Chinook and coho were down, The Seattle Times reported.
"Is this something to celebrate? Absolutely," said commission spokeswoman Sara Thompson to the Los Angeles Times. "But this is one population of salmon. There is still more work to do."
Below is footage of the record-shattering Chinook return, first at the Bonneville Dam and then at the mouth of Eagle Creek, a mile upstream from the dam.