In Our View, Jan. 1: Coho Comeback

From the Pacific Ocean to Wenatchee, a remarkable success story unfolded in 2009

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Homo sapiens aside, 2009 wasn’t so bad for other species. If fish could high-five or knuckle-bump, more than 33,000 coho salmon might have been seen celebrating this year about 185 miles east of Vancouver, just upstream of McNary Dam on the Columbia River.

A record return of coho last year confirmed the success of a scientifically complex salmon restoration program that has taken more than a decade. Ten years ago, only 4,736 coho passed McNary Dam. This year, the count was a whopping 33,385. An even more remarkable coho recovery was seen more than 150 miles farther upstream. A decade ago, only 12 adult coho were counted above Rock Island Dam near Wenatchee. That number soared to 19,805 in 2009.

This astounding coho comeback was announced Wednesday by the Bonneville Power Administration, which funds the reintroduction and fishery restoration program along with utility districts in Chelan and Grant counties and the fisheries service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The deeper story behind these statistics is the reality that man can, indeed, facilitate fish movement past dams, reintroduce species upstream and improve fish habitat in ways that compensate for harm man has done to the fish for more than a century.

Of course, ocean conditions have as much (if not more) influence on fish runs, but the numbers don’t lie. Most of the record number of coho were of hatchery origin, but BPA officials say wild, natural-spawning coho also are on the increase, fortifying hopes that the wild coho can establish self-sustaining stocks.

Coho are not the only migratory fish posting higher numbers. As The Columbian’s Allen Thomas reported last week: “A record-high return of 470,000 spring chinook is predicted for upstream of Bonneville Dam in 2010.” Also, more than 62,000 spring chinook are expected to return to the Willamette River in 2010, up from just 27,000 two years before. And according to Friday’s edition of The News Tribune in Tacoma, sockeye salmon spawned this year at Lake Cle Elum northwest of Yakima for the first time in a century.

But Thomas cautions: “One year does not a recovery make. Fish populations crash as quickly as they spike.”

Still, the coho recovery marks one of the more dramatic stories in the often experimental efforts to save dwindling populations. No one really knew if coho still could swim hundreds of miles from Wenatchee to the Pacific Ocean, and back again to spawn. BPA’s news release noted that in the late 1800s, “some 90 percent of native coho from the middle and upper Columbia” had been wiped out by irrigation diversions and development. Decades later, dams imposed an even more intimidating barrier to migratory fish. And when biologists moved hatchery fish from the lower Columbia to upriver locations, “There was a question whether it was really possible to do this so far above the dams,” said Roy Beaty, BPA’s restoration project manager. “We really didn’t know whether the fish could swim that far.”

Now we know. We hope the statistical surge of 2009 leads to further success in years to come. As Thomas points out, sport fishermen keep only hatchery-origin coho while Columbia River non-Indian gillnetters and four treaty tribes can keep all the coho they catch. A gradual shift to commercial interests releasing wild coho would help turn the success story of 2009 into meaningful, long-term progress.