Restoring Food to Salmon People

Photos courtesy Colville Confederated Tribes.

by Justus Caudell

This story was originally published as “Wild Release!” on Sept. 6, 2013 in The Tribal Tribune. This excerpt is used by permission.

The Colville Confederated Tribes’ began several projects to restore Chinook salmon populations in the Okanogan and Columbia Rivers. These projects will provide increased numbers of salmon for tribal ceremonies and subsistence needs for tribal members. The Chief Joseph Hatchery (CJH), which was completed in May 2013, was designed to do just that.

At the Colville Tribe’s Fish & Wildlife (CTFW) Selective Harvest Program, fish jump up the short ladder leading to the hatchery. On this day, some staff members worked to process fish, while others toured the facility to learn about the state-of-the-art equipment, computer systems, and more. The Selective Harvest Program plays an integral role in the overall CJH plan. Through the program, hatchery salmon are removed from the water to decrease the number of hatchery fish at the spawning grounds. The fish that are removed are distributed to the Colville membership. A small number of native salmon are kept as broodstock for the hatchery.

"This is a project we’ve been working on for several years," Colville Business Council (CBC) Chairman Michael O. Finley explained. "It says a lot of who we are and where we want to go."

By using native salmon in the hatchery, CJH augments the genetic strength of the salmon, ensuring a higher survival rate, Pat Phillips, CJH manager, explained. The vast majority of native salmon are returned to the river to continue their migration. For Phillips, the process creates integrated and segregated breeding programs that complement each other.

"This is something we want to do," Finley said. "The natural fish are especially tied to the ancestors. We have been reinvigorating our old ways of fishing. With the dams, we had to adapt to using three-way snagging hooks. And we held on to the fact salmon are good. Now we have started to bring back old ways we almost lost, especially scaffolds."

During the same week as the hatchery tour, the CTFW Program also re-constructed a weir on the Okanogan River. The weir, which is located one half-mile down river from the Malott Bridge, is on its second year of a pilot program. The objectives of the weir include helping to improve the capture of hatchery salmon, count salmon headed to the breeding grounds in the Okanogan, and to study salmon behavior.

The weir, which is a traditional structure, was once used on the river by native fishermen, CTFW scientist Keith Wolf said: “now whole runs can once again be accessed for harvest and important monitoring purposes.” The modern structure functions similar to the traditional ones but is built of metal and PVC pipe instead of wood. The fish trap is set in a deep pool and the weir’s structure works to guide Chinook into the trap where they are counted and passed or collected. Hatchery fish are removed for broodstock or to reduce the effects of too many hatchery fish on the spawning grounds.

"When the thermal barrier breaks at the mouth of the Okanogan, thousands of fish will show up," Wolf said. The weir will allow monitoring programs to receive a nearly full census of the fish population during operations, which, continued Wolf, "is generally pretty difficult to achieve in science programs."

The program faces several challenges, due to limited funding. The Selective Harvest’s purse seine, the Dream Catcher, is tasked with collecting data while also decreasing the number of hatchery salmon. It also distributes collected salmon to the Tribal membership.

The second challenge is the learning curve associated with Selective Harvest projects, especially on the Dream Catcher where crew work to pull in lines, disperse the net, set the purse, draw the net back in, identify fish, where there is little room for error.