For the first time in more than 100 years, Lake Cle Elum's sandy shorelines and streams will erupt in crimson patches late this summer as sockeye salmon turn from silver to red in preparation for spawning.
For the first time in more than 100 years, Lake Cle Elum’s sandy shorelines and streams will erupt in crimson patches late this summer as sockeye salmon turn from silver to red in preparation for spawning.
Yakama Nation members poured 1,000 adult sockeye into the northeast side of the lake earlier this month in an effort to restore a salmon run that had been key to the tribe’s culture and survival.
“They were exterminated from this basin, but in reintroducing the run we’re trying to repair these wrongs that have been made,” said Paul Ward, manager of the Yakama Nation Fisheries Program.
Sockeye went extinct in the Yakima Basin after five dams built on the upper Yakima and Naches rivers blocked access to lakes that were essential to the fish. One of those dams is at the outlet of Lake Cle Elum in Kittitas County.
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Unlike other salmon, sockeye fry must spend at least a year in the quiet waters of lakes before they’re ready to migrate downstream.
The sockeye reintroduction is part of a plan by tribal leaders to bolster all the fish species that have dwindled in the Yakima Basin since the dams went up. Last year, the tribe began planting coho salmon in the streams that feed Lake Cle Elum. Next on the list are steelhead, spring chinook and bull trout.
The sockeye transplanted this month were taken from the Columbia River at Priest Rapids Dam. The tribe plans to release 1,000 of the fish annually into the lake for the next several years, although a viable run may take 15 to 20 years to establish.
Sockeye are a more delicate species than other salmon. They’re more susceptible to disease and their scales are easily rubbed off, said Brian Saluskin, fish-passage biologist for the Yakama Nation.
The fish have a strong place in Yakama history and culture. Because sockeye are one of the last fish to spawn — usually in late September and early October — they used to keep the tribe from going hungry during the winters, said Fidelia Andy, chair of the Yakama Tribal Council’s Fish and Wildlife and Law and Order Committee.
“They’re part of a large puzzle, not only ecologically speaking but also culturally speaking,” Ward said.
To avoid interfering with existing runs, the Yakama Nation waited until at least 75,000 returning sockeye were counted at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia before taking the 1,000 for planting at Lake Cle Elum, Saluskin said.
In 2007, only about 24,000 adult fish came through the dam on their way to spawn up the Wenatchee and Okanogan rivers. Last year the number jumped to about 214,000, and this year, more than 177,000 have come through since May, he said.
Because of the dam, sockeye fry in Lake Cle Elum would be able to head downstream only when the water is high enough to go over the spillway. That usually happens for about two months each spring.
The tribe is studying the possibility of a permanent fish passage that would pipe the young fish through the dam, which is owned by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. If the passage is deemed feasible, the bureau has agreed to seek funding from Congress by 2012.
Adult fish returning to the lake would be captured about 30 miles downstream on the Yakima River at Roza Dam and hauled the rest of the way in a tank truck, Saluskin said.
Lake Cle Elum was chosen for the sockeye because of its large size, Saluskin said. Mostly within the Wenatchee National Forest, the lake also is expected to stay pristine.
Tribal members marked 25 of the female sockeye with radio tags to track where they’re spending most of their time so that the Forest Service can put up signs warning campers and anglers to stay away — especially when the fish start spawning.
“For thousands of years, these fish have come back and fed our people,” Ward said. “They’ve taken care of us, and now it’s our responsibility to take care of them.”
Jean Guerrero: 206-464-2311 or email@example.com