The Little White Salmon River flows into Drano Lake. The lake then drains into the Columbia River, which is just behind the elevated roadway at the center of the photo. Photo by Brent Lawrence / USFWS
The Little White Salmon River flows into Drano Lake. The lake then drains into the Columbia River, which is just behind the elevated roadway at the center of the photo. Photo by Brent Lawrence / USFWS

Yakama Nation Fisheries, Service working together to save migrating adult sockeye salmon

Update (8/19/2021) — Unfortunately, none of the sockeye salmon took advantage of the open fish ladder at Little White Salmon National Fish Hatchery. The ladder is now closed. However, it wasn’t for naught. A total of 527 late arriving spring Chinook found their way into the temporary holding pen, and Yakama Nation was able to use the fish for their nutrient enhancement programs for different rivers. These late arriving salmon are in really bad shape and not suitable for human consumption. Stay tuned to this Medium blog and we’ll be writing about that in detail in the near future.

Original article (Aug. 6, 2021) — Yakama Nation Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are working together to help some of the thousands of sockeye salmon in peril due to the abnormally warm water temperatures across the Columbia River Basin.

Together, Yakama Nation Fisheries and the Service’s Little White Salmon National Fish Hatchery devised a plan to allow the sockeye to reach a temporary holding pen on the fish ladder at the hatchery. If the plan works and enough sockeye swim into the pen, Yakama Nation would then transport them to Lake Cle Elum where they could spawn.

Members of Yakama Nation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff evaluate the fish ladder at Little White Salmon NFH. Photo by Cheri Anderson / USFWS
Members of Yakama Nation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff evaluate the fish ladder at Little White Salmon NFH. Photo by Cheri Anderson / USFWS

“We don’t know if the sockeye will use the fish ladder at Little White Salmon NFH in sufficient numbers to make it a success, but I know we’re going to work with Yakama Nation to give these fish every opportunity to spawn,” said Mike Clark, Columbia River Gorge NFH Complex manager. “There are a lot of obstacles ahead of us, but we have a good plan and lots of hope. Yakama Nation approached us with this idea of how to help. We’re excited that we were able to build upon our existing partnership to try to save these culturally significant salmon.”

The fish ladder was opened late Thursday afternoon. As of 8 a.m. Friday, no sockeye had made it to the temporary pen.

This summer is showing similarities to 2015, which was a historically bad year for salmon. Losses of migrating sockeye salmon exceeded 95% in some areas that year. According to NOAA Fisheries’ 2015 Adult Sockeye Salmon Passage Report, low snowpack, coupled with extremely high air temperatures throughout the interior Columbia Basin, resulted in warm water in the major tributaries to the lower Snake and Columbia rivers.

Sound familiar? It should.

Due to the extreme heatwave in late June, coupled with decreased snowpack in many areas, the temperatures on the Columbia River and its tributaries are spiking to unsafe levels for migrating salmon again this year.

The Columbia River is currently near 73 degrees at Bonneville Dam, and the water temperature has been above average since June 12. The situation is similar at many spots across the Columbia River Basin. Salmon, however, do best when water temperatures are 60 degrees or below.

The elevated water temperature is causing some of the migrating adult sockeye to seek refuge in the cooler water at Drano Lake near Cook, Washington. Drano Lake is fed by the 48-degree waters of the Little White Salmon River, which runs through Little White Salmon National Fish Hatchery. Drano Lake is estimated to be between 62 and 65 degrees.

The plan is simple enough: Open the fish ladder alongside the retention dam at the hatchery to allow the sockeye salmon to volitionally swim up the ladder and into a wire-mesh pen. The pen will keep the sockeye from reaching the holding pond that is already full of spring Chinook salmon, which will be spawned later this month. Those spring Chinook were spawned at the hatchery and recently returned home after up to five years in the Pacific Ocean.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff remove the boards that kept fish from entering the fish ladder at Little White Salmon NFH. Photo by Cheri Anderson / USFWS

The execution of the plan, however, is going to require some good luck. The sockeye simply want to return to where they were hatched so they can spawn. Their built-in homing devices, however, don’t include a trip up the Little White Salmon River. It’s as if their internal Maps program has a destination set for Idaho, northern Washington or British Columbia, but water temperatures have forced them to take a wrong turn that leads to a dead end hundreds of miles from their final destination.

Only time will tell if they can get past the internal voice yelling: “Make a U turn ahead and then turn left at the Columbia River.”

A strong drive to return home in warming waters isn’t the only challenge these fish face. Fish diseases proliferate in warmer waters, and the Service’s fish health staff is extremely concerned about the various diseases the sockeye might have.

Imagine a Venn diagram of overlapping circles of host (the salmon), pathogen (a bacterium, virus, or other microorganism that can cause disease) and environment (warm water). “Where those circles overlap, you get disease in salmon,” said Katie Royer, fish health veterinarian for the Service. “This is just one example of one type of problem we’re going to see more and more if climate change progresses. We’re going to see more fish diseases and likely fish loss.”

Images of the lesions on the sockeye salmon surveyed at Priest Rapids Dam in mid July. Photo by David Thompson / USFWS

Royer and David Thompson, a fish health specialist with the Service’s Fish and Aquatic Conservation team in the Pacific Northwest, recently examined adult sockeye salmon with skin lesions at Priest Rapids Dam on the Columbia River. Most of the fish surveyed at the dam had multiple skin lesions ranging from light abrasions of the skin to large open sores exposing muscle. These lesions differ from those typically observed in 10-plus years of Yakama Nation moving adult salmon from Priest Rapids Dam to Lake Cle Elum.

The sockeye at Drano Lake are exhibiting similar skin conditions as the sockeye found further upriver at Priest Rapids Dam.

“Warm water causes immune system suppression in the salmon,” Thompson said. “In a normal year, fish bump into things during migration and get small skin abrasions that usually heal. When their immune systems are compromised by warm water, those lesions develop infections caused by common bacterial and fungal organisms that are found in the warmer waters. They don’t have any immune response to those diseases.”

Both the Tribe and the Service take the conservation of all of the salmon very seriously, and are working to protect the health of both the returning sockeye and the spring Chinook already at the hatchery.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff place a screen that is part of a temporary holding pen on the fish ladder at Little White Salmon NFH. Photo by Cheri Anderson / USFWS

“We met with Yakama Nation Fisheries staff and developed this plan,” said Bob Turik, Little White Salmon NFH manager. “Our staff at the hatchery were able to quickly fabricate a metal panel that will act as a temporary holding pen for the sockeye salmon. It’s our best solution to helping these sockeye salmon survive to spawn, while also keeping any potential fish diseases out of our holding pond.”

Yakama Nation is also coordinating with NOAA Fisheries as Snake River sockeye salmon, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act, could potentially be handled and transported as part of this effort. The great majority of these adult sockeye are from the unlisted Okanogan River and Wenatchee River populations.

Salmon are culturally significant to multiple Native American tribes, representing the symbol and lifeblood of many tribes who call the Pacific Northwest home. Salmon also are a critical part of the economy in the Pacific Northwest through recreational and commercial fishing, and the Service’s hatchery programs play a role in addressing Columbia River Basin hydropower operations.

“Protecting these sockeye salmon is critical to many people for a variety of reasons,” Turik said. “Finding a workable solution to this situation is especially important to our partners at Yakama Nation, and that makes it important to us. I’m thrilled we’re able to collaborate on a potential solution to saving these salmon. I just hope it’s successful.”

By Brent Lawrence, Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Columbia Pacific Northwest Region.

View of the Little White Salmon River just below the retention dam at Little White Salmon National Fish Hatchery. Photo by Brent Lawrence / USFWS
View of the Little White Salmon River just below the retention dam at Little White Salmon National Fish Hatchery. Photo by Brent Lawrence / USFWS

USFWS Pacific NW Region

Conservation in the Columbia Pacific Northwest