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Aug. 7, 2020

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Tracking sockeye: Research on fish could lead to new projects in Yakima River basin

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Sockeye fishing took on a larger purpose for a handful of volunteers at the mouth of the Yakima River early on June 26.

Rather than keep the salmon that have been relatively plentiful in the Columbia River this year, anglers turned over their catch to another boat with no fishing poles. Biologists needed less than two minutes to measure the fish, determine its sex, clip a fin for DNA, and insert a small tag before putting the sockeye back into the cool water.

If all goes well, some of the 12 sockeye caught by volunteers from various regional fishing groups will provide valuable information on how the fish fare while swimming back up through the lower Yakima River to their spawning grounds from June through September. Those results could play a key role in determining what projects the Bureau of Reclamation needs to implement to ensure the viability of a sustained sockeye run in an area where they were once plentiful.

In 2018, 20 sockeye collected and tagged at Roza Dam successfully completed the journey from there to Cle Elum Dam in seven to 30 days, eliminating significant concerns about fish passage in the mid-section of the Yakima River.

The sockeye tracked in the lower Yakima a year ago told a much more troubling story, highlighting the need for more information from the ongoing three-year study.

“Now we’re looking at the lower reach, and right off the bat we found out our first year we’ve got some challenges,” said Richard Visser, the project manager for Reclamation. “We knew that, but our first year was very challenging.”

Collecting data

A $3 Passive Integrated Tag the size of a grain of rice could tell researchers critical information about where the sockeye go next.

U.S. Geological Survey researchers Brian Ekstrom and Toby Kock inserted tags that will be activated by magnetic devices strategically located at points along the Yakima and Columbia rivers. Those will allow researchers to determine whether a sockeye turned into the Yakima or continued upstream to Wenatchee or Canada.

The goal is to catch more than 100 sockeye this summer. Enough tagged sockeye in the Yakima will offer more insight on how water temperature and barriers affect migration. Another 26 fish captured at Prosser Dam will offer a test for fish passage between there and the Columbia, as well as upstream to Roza Dam.

Since it’s already known those fish are migrating up the Yakima, they were equipped with $300 radio tags. Those will track the temperature every 15 minutes and allow researchers to see when sockeye reach strategically placed telemetry stations.

“If that fish was out three weeks or 3 months, we’ll have a continuous temperature record from the time we released it until we pulled the tag (at Roza),” Kock said. “So we’ll be able to line that up with where fish were at in the system at different times based on our detections to see what kind of thermal experience they had.”

That part of the study yielded disappointing results a year ago, when no radio-tagged fish reached Roza and only six of 14 fish captured at Prosser Dam initially moved upstream after their release near the Columbia. All of them failed to reach Prosser Dam before turning back downstream into the Columbia, likely due to warm water temperatures in the Yakima.

It’s believed fish can sometimes overcome those warm temperatures — typically they won’t enter water above 70 degrees Fahrenheit — by using cool water refuges created by creeks or other elements. Last year the data showed fish rarely spent significant time in those places. For those caught near the mouth, that’s likely because they waited to enter the Yakima until September.

Kock’s report concluded most of those 46 fish caught by volunteers in late July 2019 ended up migrating elsewhere, and he’s hopeful that catching more fish this year will lead to more meaningful results. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Paul Hoffarth said volunteers will head out to the no-fishing zone near Bateman Island again on July 17 and Aug. 7.

Restoring history

Researchers from the Yakama Nation and Reclamation believe the Yakima River held one of the region’s largest sockeye runs, with 150,000 to 200,000 fish, before Reclamation dams in the early 1900s blocked fish access to the river.

Brian Saluskin, a fish passage biologist for the Yakama Nation, and others set out to restore the long-extinct run when they formed a technical group in 2006, then started the Tribe’s reintroduction program in 2009 at Lake Cle Elum. Four years later, biologists found the first adult sockeye to return to the Yakima River in decades.

“Right now there’s no fish passage at Lake Cle Elum, so once you put them in the lake, then they’re not allowed to leave, so basically their only resolve is to go up and spawn if they want to survive,” Saluskin said. “So once they go up and spawn, their offspring become native to Cle Elum and that’s where they want to get back to.”

To develop a decent stock, Yakama Nation staff collect sockeye from Priest Rapids Dam for transport north to Cle Elum. Last year a depleted run forced the wildlife department to shut down all sockeye fisheries and didn’t allow the tribe to collect any fish, but this year’s strong run of an estimated 246,000 through the Bonneville Dam could allow for the transport of 10,000.

Warm water and predators such as pelicans and bass loom as the biggest threats to sockeye trying to swim up the Yakima River. Eventually the fish will be asked to go all the way up to Lake Cle Elum, but for now the Yakama Nation collects all fish at Roza Dam and transports them in a tanker truck the rest of the way.

“Right now we just kind of want to find out how they’re doing it, where they’re going, because we do have some that are making it all the way up,” Saluskin said. “I think we’ve had eight at Roza now (this year).”

Guiding the future

The habits of sockeye could determine how Reclamation proceeds with projects to expand and improve cold water refuges, potentially reduce other fish barriers, and more.

Reclamation’s Visser manages the ongoing three-year sockeye study, which he said is expected to cost $300,000 split evenly between federal funds and state funds through the Department of Ecology. The study could potentially be extended if researchers decide they need more information.

Funds from Reclamation support other related projects, including efforts by the Benton Conservation District to better understand the cooler water spots used by salmon and steelhead in the lower Yakima. Reclamation is also working with the Yakama Nation, the wildlife department and other partners on an innovative project to give fish access to Lake Cle Elum.

That project won’t be viable if sockeye can’t navigate the rest of the Yakima, so Visser knows the study he designed in collaboration with Reclamation’s partners will be critical to the success of future runs. Everything’s connected as part of the Yakima Basin integrated water management plan, a 30-year, multibillion-dollar vision unveiled in 2012 and given additional funds by Congress in 2019. The plan calls for more water storage for irrigators, fish passage, conservation and habitat protection.

The plan recognizes that historically, fish migrated up the Yakima River to spawn primarily in four lakes: Cle Elum, Kachess, Keechelus and Bumping. If those runs can be restored, Visser said it would provide a shining example of how success can benefit all those associated with the integrated plan.

“If we do a good job on the ecology and we get better fish returns, that’s going to take pressure off of the ESA (Endangered Species Act) for steelhead,” Visser said. “If we can de-list steelhead, that’s a big deal for farmers who have to do things a certain way in the basin.”

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