Colville Tribe members, biologists celebrate the first salmon spawning in Upper Columbia River in decades

“I was overcome with complete joy.”
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SPOKANE — For the first time in over 80 years, chinook salmon have spawned in the Upper Columbia River, The Wenatchee World reported. In September 2020, Colville Tribal biologists discovered 36 redds — a hollow in a riverbed where female salmon lay eggs — along an eight-mile portion of the Sanpoil River, a tributary of the Columbia.

“I was just overcome with complete joy,” said Crystal Conant, a member of the Colville Tribe from the Arrow Lakes and SanPoil bands. “It’s like parts of your soul and heart were missing. It’s holistic healing.”

Salmon were blocked from returning to their spawning beds when the Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams were built in the area during the first half of the 20th century. The salmon returning from the ocean were obstructed by the dams and could not reach their spawning grounds.

The dams had drastically altered the Columbia River basin and the civil infrastructure on land. When it was completed, the Grand Coulee flooded over 20,000 acres of land and submerged the town of Kettle Falls and a Native burial ground.

“My ancestors were all relocated when they put in the dam,” Conant said.

Since 2014, Columbia River Tribes devised a plan to examine the salmon habitat, fish passage, and the survival of aquatic life in the river. The ultimate goal was to reintroduce the salmon to their native beds, an aspiration of tribal leaders and scientists alike for decades.  

Casey Balwin, a research scientist of the Colville Tribe, said that the sustained process of returning salmon above the dams would be a lengthy but rewarding project. 

In 2019, tribe members released about 60 salmon above the dams as part of a cultural event. 

To see how well the migratory fish survive, tribal biologists likewise released 100 fish 35 miles up the Sanpoil River in August 2020. Each fish had a tracking device that enabled biologists to check on the salmon’s whereabouts throughout the summer. In October 2020, they observed that the fish were dispersing and reproducing.

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

According to The Wenatchee World, this discovery reaffirmed the research by the Spokane Tribe, which showed that the Columbia River contained hundreds of miles of spawning and rearing habitat for steelhead and spring chinook production — despite the two dams.The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is assisting the project to restore salmon to their original spawning beds. The department had also certified the fish are free of disease, namely a strain of infectious hematopoietic necrosis (IFN) that can kill rainbow trout.

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