The number of spring chinook returning from the Pacific Ocean is down this year across the Northwest.
But there is reason for optimism for spring chinook that originated in the Deschutes River Basin.
So far, 46 upper basin spring chinook have returned and been released to spawn in the Deschutes tributaries above the Pelton Round Butte Hydroelectric Project near Madras. That is a huge increase from just five returning to the region last year.
Steve Corson, a spokesman for Portland General Electric, credits the work the energy company has done with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and other organizations in the Deschutes basin to reintroduce the salmon that were cut off when Pelton and Round Butte dams were built in the 1950s and 1960s.
PGE and the Warm Springs tribes completed a new fish passage system at the dams in 2010 and have monitored the spring chinook return each year. This year has been the highest yet, with 14% returning.
Corson said he hopes to see the numbers continue to increase, but he is remaining realistic about his expectations.
“The sobering reality is this is very much a long-term project,” he said. “These runs were cut off for the better part of 50 years, and we are not less than 10 years into the reintroduction effort.”
Another possible reason for the higher return of spring chinook is the way dam operators are collecting and releasing them around the Pelton and Round Butte dams, Corson said. Two years ago, dam operators started collecting and releasing the fish at night, rather than during the day when they are more vulnerable to predators.
“By doing night releases, we give the fish a chance to reacclimate to the river and get on their way and hopefully have better survivability,” Corson said.
Of the 46 upper basin spring chinook that returned this year, five made their way to Whychus Creek near Sisters, where environmental agencies have worked to restore the habitat along the creek.
The five adult fish is the largest number to return to Whychus Creek in any year of the creek’s restoration.
Brad Chalfant, executive director of the Deschutes Land Trust, said Whychus Creek used to run completely dry each year before his organization and others started a restoration effort.
Through the work of the land trust, Deschutes River Conservancy and Deschutes Watershed Council over the past 20 years, the creek is starting to have a healthy stream flow and habitat to support a variety of species, including fish, birds and beavers.
Chalfant said it is a positive sign to see spring chinook reaching Whychus Creek and is an example of the years of restoration work starting to pay off.
“To see the number of these upper basin fish actually going up, that would suggest for us that despite bad ocean conditions and despite drought, we are beginning to see some return on all of the work and investment that has been made,” he said.
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