Editor’s note: Research, tenacious advocates and $16 billion have lifted Columbia salmon from the brink of extinction. But the Northwest has yet to figure out a sustainable plan to save the fish that provides spiritual sustenance, food for the table, and hundreds of millions of dollars in business and ecological benefits. This is part of a continuing series exploring the plight of the region’s salmon.
Fisheries scientists say the Baker River sockeye experience can’t simply be copied elsewhere. It took the cooperation of Indian tribes, state and federal agencies, as well as Puget Sound Energy to bring the sockeye there back from their 1980s near-death experience.
The sockeye returned to the Baker River by the tens of thousands during the 2017 season – enough to provide sport for recreational and tribal fishers and to provide enough breeding fish to keep the run healthy.
Given that the run had dwindled to just 99 fish in 1985, the health of the Baker River sockeye run seems to provide proof that depleted salmon runs can be brought back from the brink of extinction.
Jon-Paul Shannahan, managing biologist for the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe’s Natural Resources Department, noted that sockeye are unique in spending their first year of life in a lake before migrating downriver to the sea. That mostly protects them from all the things that can go wrong in a stream: floods, drought, silt, and water that gets too warm.
Adult sockeye headed upstream are trapped and trucked to Baker Lake above the two PSE-operated dams, where some are spawned artificially in a PSE-operated hatchery. Others spawn in an artificial spawning bed that contains a system to push cold water up through gravel to mimic ideal natural spawning conditions. Some fish are released into the lake where some spawn on their own and others are hooked by sport fishers.
The newest feature of the Baker River salmon system is a $50 million “fish gulper” – officially the floating surface collector – in Baker Lake that guides young sockeye into a trap for a downstream truck ride that gets them safely below the dams as they begin their migration back to the ocean.
Before that gulper was completed in 2008, PSE had relied on a more primitive system to catch young salmon, but that system insured the survival of no more than half the young fish. The newer system, said to be the first of its kind, enables about 90 percent of the young fish to get past the dams. In raw numbers, that now means more than one million young salmon released into the lower river alive and swimming.
Arnie Aspelund, senior resource scientist with PSE, has been working on the Baker River salmon restoration project since it got underway in earnest in the mid-1980s. He said scientists have learned a lot about the needs of salmon since the early days, and that state-of-the-art knowledge has been put to practical use to restore the Baker sockeye.
“I can’t express how rewarding that is, to see it come to fruition,” Aspelund said. “It has garnered world attention.”
But Aspelund also noted that the measures used to restore Baker River sockeye can’t be replicated in most other places.
Brett Barkdull, district biologist for the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the measures taken on the Baker River and in Baker Lake simply don’t translate to the Nooksack, the Columbia, or most other river systems where many salmon runs have dwindled to dangerously-low levels.
Baker Lake’s advanced fish-gulper system is being copied on other reservoirs, including the Columbia River system, where there are near-extinct runs on the Columbia’s Snake River tributary, Barkdull said. Those new systems may help, but Barkdull doesn’t expect a dramatic impact on rescuing those runs. Snake River salmon will still have to run a gantlet of reservoirs full of predator fish species.