When I was a young child, my father used to take me fishing. I caught my very first salmon on the Yakima River. As I grew up, I also witnessed our Yakama treaty-protected salmon runs diminishing to the point of extinction.
In 1997, I assisted with startup operations at Yakama’s Cle Elum Research and Supplementation Facility for spring chinook salmon. I still remember that very first adult spring chinook that returned to the river to spawn. Now I am a Yakama Nation Tribal Council member and, in these last weeks, I have witnessed the return of the sockeye to Cle Elum Lake and Cle Elum River.
Sockeye only exist from Northern California to Alaska. They are unique among salmon because their young live and feed for two years in lakes before journeying to the ocean, and their adults stop in these lakes, where some will feed again, before proceeding upriver to spawn.
Historically, at least 200,000 sockeye returned to the Yakima River Basin each year. But a century ago, these runs were driven to extinction when irrigation-storage reservoir dams blocked their passage to Cle Elum Lake and other nursery lakes throughout the basin.
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Beginning in 2009, Yakama Nation Fisheries, with agreements with the Okanogan Nation Alliance in Canada — which has a sockeye-reintroduction project — and our federal and state partners, have trucked thousands of adult sockeye to Cle Elum Lake and released them in the hope that they would survive and spawn as they had a century ago. No one knew for sure they would, but they did. This year has been particularly good: Since the end of September, 10,000 sockeye have been spawning in the river above the lake.
Next summer will be the first time in a century that sockeye spawned in Cle Elum River will return to Cle Elum River to spawn themselves.
There is no other sockeye-reintroduction effort — using adult spawners to repopulate a river system — like this in the state.
The Yakama Nation has undertaken this effort in the hope of being able to harvest sockeye in the Yakima River Basin. Sockeye were once a primary food that sustained Yakama families throughout the winter. In the future, we hope the Yakama, as well as sport fishermen, will have the opportunity to again catch sockeye in these Eastern Washington rivers.
Recently, the Yakama Nation, irrigators, federal, state and local governments throughout the Yakima River Basin have agreed to a water-management plan to ensure water for people, for agriculture and for salmon. One aspect of the plan is for fish-passage measures to be installed in the earthen dam that now stops sockeye from returning to Cle Elum Lake. That will take an investment of dollars but, when completed, young sockeye will be able to leave Cle Elum Lake, the first step in their long journey to the ocean.
By doing that, we will see the natural forest ecosystem along the Cle Elum River grow healthier from the nutrients the sockeye bring to the river. And the bears, cougars, eagles, osprey and other small birds and bugs that historically fed upon the carcasses of the salmon that spawned and died will feast again.
Many in the younger generations don’t understand why the sockeye restoration matters. Even I have only heard about the great sockeye runs from my great-grandparents, who grew up before the dams. In that time, the fish came back naturally and everyone could fish sockeye in the Yakima River Basin.
Someday, our children will say their parents and grandparents did what they could to put the sockeye life cycle back together, and the sockeye will survive because of what we did.
Virgil Lewis is a member of the Yakama Nation Tribal Council and he serves as chairman of Yakama’s Fish and Wildlife Committee.