Yakama celebrate return of sockeye to Lake Cle Elum

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LAKE CLE ELUM, Wash. – After being absent for 103 years, 100 sockeye salmon were released into Lake Cle Elum July 7.

The fish were trapped at Priest Rapids Dam, and after a two-hour journey were released into the lake with scores of onlookers to watch them swim into their new watery home.

It was call for celebration for members of the Confederated Tribes and bands of the Yakama Nation, who watched for generations the depletion of their sockeye, known as “blue backs,” with the building of each new dam. They prayed, sang and spoke on the importance of salmon to their culture during the historic event – a precursor to other tribal projects that could return the salmon to the Yakima Basin for good.

Tribal elder Virginia Beavert, 87, heard stories about the salmon from her parents who fished, and collected medicines and food from plants in the area. She said tribes from as far as Oregon would fish in Lake Cle Elum and gather food from the valley.

“They used to come to a camp there after they gathered all their food, and they dried it as there was no refrigeration back then. They would gather there and celebrate peacefully.”

Brian Saluskin, fisheries passage biologist for the Yakama Nation, and Beavert’s nephew, said the first wooden dams constructed on the Cle Elum River began in the 1890s. The growing agricultural business of eastern Washington fueled water demand for crops. The lakes of the Yakima Basin were a perfect solution for use as reservoirs.

When the first timber crib dam was built in 1906 the salmon officially ceased to exist in Lake Cle Elum, which is 80 miles east of Seattle. To further seal their fate, in 1933, the crib dam was replaced with the present 165-foot high earthfill Cle Elum Dam constructed by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation.

The only way to bring salmon back into the lake required a manmade solution for the manmade problem.

The salmon released will soon spawn, with those eggs slated to hatch in spring 2010. Many of the young – known as fry – will head toward the ocean the following spring. Meanwhile, the tribe will continue to release sockeye into the lake, with the amount depending on water levels and other related projects.

When Saluskin started working for the fisheries several years ago, he was apprehensive about moving the sockeye, but his supervisors urged him to think outside the box. “That was the last thing I wanted to do, but now it makes the most sense. You don’t do any harm to the fish and they travel really well.”

Saluskin said a fish passage from the river into Lake Cle Elum sounds good in theory, but is not a viable solution due to fluctuations of the lake’s water level. The fish returning must be held in a voluntarily trap then transferred back into the lake.

“That is the only way we can do the adult returns because the way the dam is situated, the timing of the adults return, and how much the reservoir draws down every year.”

The fish will leave the lake when on spill, based on a feasibility study completed by the tribe last year.

As a part of the study, they constructed a downstream temporary juvenile fish passage for fish to leave when the lake is on spill. The Bureau of Reclamation placed Passive Integrated Transponder tag antennas on a flume constructed on the spillway of the dam.

Saluskin’s team placed the salmon in a net pen with PIT tags and found that adult fish hit the antennas, and some even tried to return to the lake, which was a positive indicator.

“We are trying to acquire funding for these facilities because it will be a permanent downstream passage for the juveniles to leave the lake.”

According to the “Cle Elum and Bumping Lake Dams Fish Passage Facilities Planning Report – Draft,” the total construction costs of the Cle Elum Dam fish passage facilities alone is estimated at $96 million. The goal is to begin the construction of fish passage facilities in 2014, with completion within three years.

The tribe is working with the Bureau of Reclamation to create fish passages on all the dams within the Yakima Basin, including the Bumping, Kachess, Keechelus and Tieton reservoirs.

“The restoration of sockeye salmon to the Yakima River Basin is a significant step to the people of the Yakama Nation,” said Chairman Ralph Sampson Jr. “For centuries the sockeye took care of our people until it was carelessly extirpated from this river. From this day forward this precious resource will once again call the Yakima River and these beautiful mountain lakes and streams home.”