Happiness and healing: For first time in years, chinook salmon spawn in Columbia River

SPOKANE, Wash. — For the first time in more than a generation, chinook salmon have spawned in the upper Columbia River system.

Colville Tribal biologists counted 36 redds, a gravely nest where female salmon lay eggs, along an 8-mile stretch of the Sanpoil River, a tributary of the Columbia, in September, the Spokesman Review-Journal reported.

“I was shocked at first, then I was just overcome with complete joy,” said Crystal Conant, a Colville Tribal member from the Arrow Lakes and SanPoil bands. “I don’t know that I have the right words to even explain the happiness and the healing.”

The news is a step toward full reintroduction of the migratory fish and another watershed cultural moment for the region’s tribes. Since the Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams were built in the 1950s and 1930s, respectively, salmon have been blocked from returning to spawning beds in the upper Columbia River.

For decades, tribal leaders and scientists have dreamed of bringing the fish back to their native beds. Since 2014, the Columbia River tribes have worked on a plan that examines habitat, fish passage and survival among other things.

“It’s an exciting project. It’s been rewarding to work on,” said Casey Baldwin, a research scientist for the Colville Tribe. “The long-term process of reintroducing salmon above Chief Joe and Grand Coulee is going to take a long time.”

In 2019, about 60 salmon were released above the Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams in a cultural event.

As a continuation of that project, tribal biologists released 100 fish 35 miles up the Sanpoil River in August to see how well they survived. Each fish was outfitted with a PIT tag, a type of passive tracking device. Biologists checked on the hatchery-bred fish throughout the summer and in October started noticing that the fish were spreading out and spawning.

“Considering they weren’t from the Sanpoil, we were pleasantly surprised with the high rate of survival and the amount of spawning we were able to observe,” Baldwin said. “You never know if the fish are just going to turn around and swim away.”

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