SALMON LA SAC -- Yakama Nation biologists released thousands of sockeye salmon into a Central Washington lake over the past four summers to restore fish runs that were decimated with the damming of area rivers and streams.
Each fall, the just-released fish swam up the Cle Elum River to spawn and die. Their babies, meanwhile, spent a year in the lake before swimming to the ocean to grow into adulthood.
Now, four years after the first release in 2009, those adult fish are returning to their birthplace to spawn, and tribal members are celebrating what they hope is the resurrection of a revered species to its native habitat.
"You are part of a sacred ceremony to celebrate the return of an important ingredient to our body, our hearts, our life," Yakama elder Russell Jim told the crowd gathered on the shore of Cle Elum Lake. "It does my heart proud what I'm going to see."
And with that, the gates were lifted Wednesday on a tank holding 27 sockeye salmon that had been caught at a downstream dam, sending the fish headfirst into the lake. The sockeyes were among 232 offspring biologists have counted so far that have returned from the ocean.
The celebration marks one of several in recent years for restoration of salmon in the Yakima River Basin, which stretches from Snoqualmie Pass to Richland. The construction of large, earthen dams — built for flood control and to provide irrigation water for farmers — blocked passage for fish that hatch in rivers and live in the ocean before returning to spawn. Three species of fish were essentially wiped out there: coho, summer chinook and sockeye.
Also known as the "blueback," sockeye salmon are revered by Pacific Northwest tribes. They are among the last species to spawn in the fall, giving tribal people sustenance through the winter. They also are the only species of salmon that rears in a lake rather than a river or stream — juveniles spend a year in the lake before migrating to the ocean, then return to their birthplace to spawn.
Extinct for decades
Historically, at least 200,000 sockeye returned to the Yakima River Basin until the construction of dams eliminated them.
Sockeye were extinct in the basin in 1933 with the construction of Cle Elum Dam, though fish biologists are fairly certain they were eliminated years earlier -- perhaps even 100 years ago -- when other dams were built downstream, said David Fast, Yakama Nation senior fisheries biologist.
Cle Elum Lake is a prime spot for reintroduction, Fast said, because the lake is pristine with little surrounding development.
Across the Northwest, American Indian tribes have led the way with the reintroduction of lost species of fish.
In Oregon, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla successfully restored spring chinook salmon to the Umatilla River and are now working to replicate that success in southeast Washington's Walla Walla River basin. And in north-central Washington, the Colville Confederated Tribes have worked to restore sockeye to the Okanogan River.
Yakama biologists reached agreement with the Colville tribes and several Canadian tribes to capture 1,000 of those returning sockeye from below Priest Rapids Dam in 2009 for their own reintroduction program in Cle Elum Lake. In 2012, that number was 10,000.
But Cle Elum Lake is just the beginning of the restoration effort, said Yakama fish biologist Brian Saluskin.
Sockeye used to be found in four large lakes in the basin — Cle Elum, Kachess, Keechelus and Bumping.
"Our main goal is to get prime fish passage past all the dams in the Yakima basin," he said. "This is just the first step."
A slide will allow juvenile salmon to spill out from the lake in spring to the Cle Elum River, a tributary of the Yakima River, after which they will travel to the ocean. Because the slide only works when the reservoir is full, future plans call for building a tower that would stay with the levels of the lake, allowing fish to wash downstream even in dry years.
That $90 million project is included in a federal-state-brokered agreement to improve water supplies in the basin. Lawmakers approved state funding for the agreement during the special session.
Returning adult salmon will be captured downstream in the Yakima River and trucked to the lake.
There are still a number of variables that will determine whether the project succeeds, said Jeff Tayer of the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
They include big fluctuations in reservoir levels, fish passage at dams up and down the migration route, and ensuring adequate stream levels for sockeye that return upstream in midsummer — when water levels are low — to spawn, he said.