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Focus on Nisqually: Threatened chinook make comeback

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TACOMA, Wash. - An agreement between the Nisqually tribe and a federal
wildlife refuge, which gave new protections for the Nisqually River
estuary, is coming at a very fortunate time for the river.

In addition to a surprising late run of coho the tribe reports that other
species of salmon are increasing as well.

The Nisqually tribe partially credits a surprising comeback of chinook
salmon to voluntary fishing reductions by tribal members on the Nisqually
River. This year, 2,600 chinook returned to the river, drastically up from
400 a decade ago.

Tribal fishermen cut the number of fishing days in half and fishing was
restricted to smaller areas of the river. Because of an early 1970s federal
decision named after Judge George Boldt, 21 Washington state tribes,
including Nisqually, are entitled to 50 percent of the state's fish harvest
and these tribes are big players in the state's fish industry.

The tribe also credits gains made in habitat recovery on 40 acres at the
Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.

Nisqually is considered the lead entity on the eponymous river that goes
through their reservation. Some tribal sources consider the Nisqually
chinook a separate species, but biologists say the name reflects the
tribe's right to be the sole harvester of chinook on the Nisqually River.

As a whole, the chinook of the entire Puget Sound area are currently listed
as a threatened species and the tribe is only cautiously optimistic.

"The numbers of returning salmon are looking good, but we have a lot of
work to do before we really recover Nisqually River chinook," said
Nisqually Tribe Natural Resources Director David Troutt.

The tribe is also looking at other ways to ensure that populations of
chinook continue to recover in the area. There has been a raging debate in
northern California and the Pacific Northwest between environmentalists and
business interests over the role of hatchery-raised salmon.

Some environmental groups have said that there is no place for any
hatchery-raised fish in population counts and that hatchery-raised fish
might be more harmful than helpful to native fish populations. Business
groups counter that all fish should count and that hatchery-raised fish
should not be distinguished from wild populations.

Most tribes in the region, however, have staked a middle ground between the
two groups generally believing that hatchery-raised fish can play a limited
role in bringing back fish populations. Nisqually is currently advocating a
management program that would sort out hatchery-raised chinook, usually
distinguished by a clipped fin, at a specific checkpoint before they reach
their spawning grounds in favor of chinook that have spawned in the wild.

"By allowing only naturally-born chinook to spawn in the wild, we can help
them become adapted to the Nisqually River," said Troutt.

In doing, this the tribe hopes to rejuvenate the wild populations of
chinook that used to run up the Nisqually River in large numbers.