Salmon moved to native waters before Condit Dam is breached

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

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See a video of the transfer.

WHITE SALMON RIVER — Two dozen spawning fall chinook salmon took a ride home Friday to a place they’d never known.

Fish biologists deployed boats, nets, weirs and truck-mounted tanks to move the husky spawners out of the way of the massive sediment plume that will be unleashed in late October, when 98-year-old Condit Dam is breached. These particular salmon were transported in tanks to the town of Husum, where they slid down a chute into the clear blue-green waters above Rattlesnake Rapid and, with a sweep of their muscular tails, swam away.

Federal biologists hope to capture at least 500 tule fall chinook by the end of the run and set them free in their native waters above the dam. Two years of trial runs have convinced them that these fish will gravitate to the places where their distant ancestors spawned until the White Salmon River was dammed nearly a century ago.

In 2008, the biologists scrapped plans to transport the returning fall chinook to the nearby Spring Creek National Fish Hatchery, where tule fall chinook were reared from 1901 through the 1970s, in favor of setting them loose in the free-flowing river above the dam, a process called “adult outplanting.”

“We discussed artificial propagation, but there was a consensus we would do natural colonization instead,” said Rod Engle, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fish biologist who is heading the salmon relocation program. “Some amount of natural propagation already was happening. Fall chinook were going up to the face of the dam.”

Not every fish returning to the lower river over the next six weeks will get this red-carpet treatment. Bright fall chinook and steelhead just passing through on their way upriver will be on their own when a 15-foot-diameter hole at the base of the 90-foot-thick dam opens, releasing up to 2.7 million cubic yards of sediment that has built up over the lifetime of the dam. Only the tule fall chinook and steelhead native to the White Salmon will be rescued. That’s because both are protected as threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The unique salmon capture plan is the result of six years of work by the White Salmon Working Group, which came together in 2005 to discuss what to do with wild salmon present in the lower river when the dam is breached. Members of the group include the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Forest Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Yakama Nation and PacifiCorp, which owns Condit Dam.

Surveys conducted for the working group revealed that between 3,000 and 4,000 fall chinook were spawning in that one mile of the lower White Salmon River that was open to them.

“I think a lot of people thought there was nothing below the dam,” Engle said.

“The river got no attention until the discussion about taking out the dam,” agreed Joe Skalicky, a federal fish biologist who is working closely with Engle on the project.

Friday was a banner day for fish captures. Using a 200-foot-long seine net to encircle the fish, volunteers netted a record number along a river stretch about a mile upstream from the river’s mouth.

The overall goal is to capture and relocate at least 500 fall chinook.

“We’re approaching 200,” Engle said. “This week we are at our peak.” About 80 percent of the fall chinook captured so far are wild fish.

After netting, the big salmon, ranging in weight from 20 to 40 pounds, were processed one by one on a floating barge near shore. Biologists record their length, sex and whether they are wild or hatchery-bred. They collect fin clips and other genetic material.

Confined in close quarters, the captured fish can be feisty. “The other day, I was reaching in to grab a fish and got a nick” from a salmon’s snaggly tooth, said Megan McKim, an Oregon State University student who was helping out with recording fish measurements.

Steelhead trapped in the river are screened to determine whether they are native to the stream. Scale samples are mounted on cards and sent by Federal Express to a federal laboratory in Seattle. “In 24 hours, they can tell us whether that fish needs to go upstream or not,” Engle said. “If we capture it again and determine that it is genetically native to the White Salmon, we’ll transport it.”

So far, only three native steelhead have returned this year. Spring chinook have been extirpated from the river, and only a few coho remain.

“Steelhead have the most viability and will benefit the most,” Engle said. “The habitat that will be opened up is more suitable for steelhead.”

With the dam’s removal, 33 miles of the White Salmon and its tributaries will be opened up for steelhead, 21 miles will be available for coho, and eight miles on the main stem of the White Salmon will be opened for tule fall chinook. Husum Falls is believed to be the upper limit of the fall chinook’s range.

Tule fall chinook are a genetically distinct population of lower Columbia River salmon that have been reared by the federal government as mitigation for the loss of salmon runs due to the operation of Columbia River dams.

“We have held this stock in trust for nearly 100 years,” Engle said. “If not for the dams, they would be spawning in the main stem of the Columbia up to Celilo.”

Before European settlement, the Husum area was a popular trading place for Indian tribes, including the Yakama Tribe, which ceded the area in its treaty with the U.S. government. With the return of the salmon, “there will be tribal fisheries at platforms all along the White Salmon River,” Engle said.

Jaco Klinkenberg, the owner of a Husum kayaking and rafting outfitter called Wet Planet, came to watch the salmon slide into the river across the road from her business Friday. She said she’s looking forward to telling her clients about the return of the salmon to the upper river, even though that means she’ll be sharing Husum Falls with tribal fishermen.

“We definitely see it as our job not just to provide an adrenaline rush but to teach people about the natural history of the area,” she said.

Northwestern Lake, the reservoir behind Condit Dam, has been lowered 10 feet and now looks more like a river than a lake, with broad deposits of sediment along its banks. Once the salmon have been transplanted and the dam breached, Engle is crossing his fingers for bad weather.

“I’m hoping for a rain, terrible winter, because that will make the sediment move downstream faster,” he said.

Kathie Durbin: 360-735-4523 or kathie.durbin@columbian.com.