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News / Northwest

CTUIR smolt release part of broader effort to return salmon to Walla Walla Basin

By Kate Smith, Walla Walla Union-Bulletin
Published: April 8, 2024, 6:00am

WALLA WALLA — A caravan of vehicles snaked from the Water & Environment Center at Walla Walla Community College to the end of Mill Creek Road in Umatilla County on Wednesday, March 27, dodging potholes and raindrops in the damp, green scenery.

Where the road ends, Mill Creek flows. Some water is diverted into the city of Walla Walla’s water intake facility, but the rest joins with the Walla Walla River and Columbia River, eventually flowing out to the Pacific Ocean.

As cars parked, community members gathered on the bank to watch the release of about 30,000 spring Chinook smolts into the stream, part of a larger effort to return salmon to the Walla Walla Basin.

Jerimiah Bonifer, manager of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation Fisheries Program, said the smolts were part of the second full-term group from the Walla Walla Hatchery that has operated on the South Fork of the Walla Walla River since 2021.

The hatchery mimics the natural process, Bonifer said, collecting spawn from adult spring Chinook, incubating the eggs and rearing them until they are about 6 inches long, shiny and ready for release.

The released smolt then out-migrate to the ocean where they spend one to three years before, hopefully, returning to the Walla Walla Basin.

“The goal is that they’ll make their way into the system and spawn naturally, but of course, as we continue the hatchery supplementation, we’ll continue to collect brood stock from those returning adults,” he said. “Our hope is that we’re collecting brood stock from fish that originated in the basin.”

The release of 30,000 was the final of four releases that introduced a total of about 117,000 salmon smolts to the basin last week.

The hatchery releases about 500,000 smolts to the basin annually and hopes 5,000 will return.

“You can imagine how significant that would be to the basin considering that last year we only had nine,” Bonifer said.

Reintroducing the fish, along with other efforts to enhance stream flow and water supply, will support the health of the basin and the people that rely on it.

“The end goal is that eventually, we don’t have to do stuff like this — we have a naturally returning population that provides for tribal harvest, community harvest, and provides for the processes that the basin needs to be healthy ecologically,” Bonifer said.

Taylor McCroskey with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said PIT tags are used to study juvenile fish moving downstream and returns for adults. About 15,000 fish released this week were tagged.

“It helps us, as they migrate downstream, determine survival,” McCroskey said. “Once they come back as adults, we’ll be able to tell how many migrated back up into the basin.”

Plan for the basin

The visit to Upper Mill Creek was a field trip for members of the Walla Walla Basin Advisory Committee, the group tasked with implementing efforts to improve stream flow in the Walla Walla Basin.

Anton Chiono, habitat conservation project leader with the CTUIR Department of Natural Resources, said salmon have been extinct in the basin for about a century.

CTUIR has been working with other fish co-managers to bring them back, but it takes more than rearing smolts and returning them to the water.

“A big challenge of that is having water in the stream,” Chiono said.

The Walla Walla Basin stretches across two states and a sovereign tribe, which has made it a challenge to manage the basin. A plan known as Walla Walla Water 2050 allows Washington, Oregon and CTUIR to manage watershed together across the stateline.

“We just got our Oregon legislation passed this spring, and Washington passed it last year, that allows us to keep water in the stream,” Chiono said. “It is critical that we were able to do that because the fish are coming back.”

Another key project to get water back in Mill Creek is to have the city leave more in Mill Creek in the summer.

“We’ve been working with the city to have them divert water in the winter, store it and then use that in the summer so they can leave the stream flows in Mill Creek when the fish are coming back,” Chiono said.

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Tribal significance

The Walla Walla watershed is historically and culturally significant to the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla people. CTUIR signed the Treaty of 1855 in the Walla Walla Basin, in Mill Creek, Bonifer said.

“This basin holds traditional and historical value to the tribes, but also it’s a place where we’ve seen our natural resources dwindle, or be — in the case of the salmon — extirpated from the basin, extinct,” Bonifer said.

Tribal harvest is an important part of CTUIR’s First Foods mission, and it’s also an important piece to restoring natural processes for a strong ecosystem, Bonifer said.

“Returns of healthy and abundant salmon populations to the basin will provide those tribal harvest opportunities in a traditional use area but are also going to provide opportunities for state anglers, for community members,” he said. “They’re going to restore ecological processes to the basin that create a healthy and resilient basin as we look toward the future.”