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Once nearly extinct, Baker River sockeye released in record numbers

Puget Sound Energy’s “trap and haul” facility on the Baker River will release a record-setting 1.1 million juvenile sockeye and coho salmon into the river in 2017 – “an incredible achievement,” an agency official said, given that the Baker River’s sockeye population was nearly extinct 30 years ago.
Puget Sound Energy’s “trap and haul” facility on the Baker River will release a record-setting 1.1 million juvenile sockeye and coho salmon into the river in 2017 – “an incredible achievement,” an agency official said, given that the Baker River’s sockeye population was nearly extinct 30 years ago. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Only time will tell if the record-setting release of about 1.1 million young salmon through the Baker River Project will mean larger adult salmon runs in the years to come.

Time and Mother Nature.

“It’s very likely if the ocean conditions are acceptable that you may have a large adult return,” said Doug Bruland, supervisor of energy resource operations at Puget Sound Energy. “You just never know. There are too many variables.”

The Baker River Hydroelectric Project is PSE’s largest, located on a tributary of the Skagit River.

What is known is the Baker River Project continues to make strides in regard to the number of young salmon being released into the Baker River.

This year, about 1.1 million juvenile sockeye and coho salmon from PSE’s downstream trap and haul facilities have been released into the river.

“This is an incredible achievement,” said Matt Blanton, PSE’s Baker River plant manager. “Especially given that in the 1980s, the Baker River’s sockeye population was nearly extinct. The milestone is a testament to the hard work and the partnerships built around this project.”

It’s the second time since efforts began in 1985 to bolster the salmon populations in the Baker River that the milestone of 1 million fish released has been reached. The first was in 2014.

Bruland, who once worked as fisheries supervisor for PSE, said with two months remaining to release fish, the record number could increase.

The released salmon, which are mostly 1-year-old fish, will make their journey to the ocean. There they will spend the next two years before making their way back to the Baker River in 2019 as adult salmon.

Sockeye and coho salmon are the most abundant fish in Baker River.

The river’s annual adult sockeye returns have averaged about 3,500 since the 1920s. However, the returns plunged to a low of 99 fish in 1985.

Baker River3
Puget Sound Energy’s “trap and haul” facility on the Baker River will release a record-setting 1.1 million juvenile sockeye and coho salmon into the river in 2017. The river is a tributary of the Skagit River in northwest Washington. Scott Harder | PSE Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Fish restoration efforts have had a dramatic effect in the recovery of Baker River sockeye, with a record 52,243 returning to the Baker River in 2015.

“It’s exciting to see these increases,” Bruland said. “I’ve been involved in this for 24 years. It’s my passion. For everyone involved, it’s great to see all the hard work pay off.”

Those efforts have included improvements in technology and hatchery sciences.

“A new hatchery, which has allowed production to increase, along with spawning beaches which allow these fish to spawn naturally and the addition of the new floating collector, have all attributed to these increased numbers,” Bruland said.

It’s a delicate balance of how many young fish are good for the species.

“We don’t want to overpopulate the (lake) with too many fish,” Bruland said. “We can’t crash that population. We weigh and measure (the young fish). If we see a drop in size, then we know there may not be enough to eat. We are very careful to track those numbers.”

PSE works with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the state Department of Fish & Wildlife, and the Sauk-Suiattle, Swinomish and Upper Skagit tribes to manage the Baker River salmon populations.

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