Think Out Loud

Nez Perce Tribe successfully reintroducing coho salmon

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
Dec. 8, 2021 1:10 a.m. Updated: Dec. 8, 2021 9:45 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Dec. 7

Coho salmon in Eagle Creek, a tributary of the Columbia River, during the fall of 2009.

A record number of coho salmon have made it past the Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River.

Rick Swart / Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife


This year a record number of coho salmon made the trip from the Pacific up the Columbia and Snake rivers this year. The Nez Perce Tribe has been working for decades to improve fish passage upstream of the dams.

Becky Johnson is in charge of the tribe’s hatchery program.

“We’re super excited just to have some fish back, because they were totally gone,” she said. “But it’s really important to contextualize that it’s just a mere fraction of what used to be here.”

About 24,000 salmon made it past the dams this year. In the early 1900s, about 200,000 fish made the journey annually.

The odyssey that the fish embark on, traveling hundreds of miles to and from the Pacific Ocean, is daunting. The fish face predators from the land and sea and must traverse through several dams. Juvenile salmon are about six inches when released into the water.

“We’re pretty happy if half of the fish that get released up here make it through that journey out to the ocean,” she said.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: Not too long ago, there were no coho salmon in the Lostine River, which feeds into the Snake River. But concerted hatchery efforts going back more than two decades have made a big difference, and those efforts are bearing fruit. In fact, this year saw a record number of coho; 24,000 made the trip. From the Pacific up the Columbia and Snake rivers, past a whole gauntlet of massive dams. Among other things, this means that salmon are back in the Lostine River.

Becky Johnson is in charge of the Nez Perce tribes hatcheries program. She joins us to talk about what they have achieved, and also her hopes for the future. Becky Johnson, welcome to the show.

Becky Johnson: Thank you very much.

Miller: We’re talking about a real success story on the Lostine River, but I thought we should probably start with a reality check. Can you give us a sense for how this year’s coho returns compared to the estimates of pre dam, pre industrial scale fishing, pre white people, runs?

Johnson: Sure. A hundred, or two hundred years ago, there were probably about a quarter of a million coho that actually returned to the Snake River basin.

Miller: So 10% of that today is cause for celebration, but still, it’s a sobering fact that it’s only 10%.

Johnson: Yeah, I know that sounds kind of funny, but we’re super excited just to have some fish back, because they were totally gone. It’s really important to contextualize that it’s just a mere fraction of what used to be here.

Miller: With that context in mind, what did go through your mind when you saw the numbers coming in, or you saw the fish going upstream?

Johnson: It’s very exciting for us up here. The Snake Basin, where we live, and where Northeast Oregon is, is 500 to 600 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Like you said, it’s eight big main stem dams away, so it’s pretty much a big gauntlet that our fish face as they leave this basin as juveniles that are just about six inches long, and then as they return as adults a couple years later. When we start to see numbers like that, a record of 24,000 this year, it’s very exciting for us that we’re having enough fish come back that we can fish on and harvest for people to eat, as well as spawn naturally in the tributaries.

Miller: Can you give us a sense for what both of those trips are like, for the juvenile salmon going out to the ocean, and then for the older ones, depending on the species, two or three years later, what the trip is like going back? Starting with the trip out to the Pacific, what do they have to do?

Johnson: Sure. When they leave here in the spring, they again have to travel about 600 miles downstream from the Lostine River, which is a tributary to the Grande Ronde, and then the Snake [River]. They have to travel, like I said, over eight main stem dams. They’re big hydro electric dams if you’ve ever seen them; if you’re close to Portland, you might have seen Bonneville Dam. Well, there’s eight of those between here and the ocean. There’s predators of all kinds. There’s fish predators. There’s bird predators. Actually, we’re pretty happy if half of the fish that get released up here make it through that journey out to the ocean.

Miller: Just to begin with.


Johnson: Just to begin with. In the Lostine River, we reintroduced fish in 2017, and we annually released 500,000 juvenile salmon, those small, six inch fish, and we’re super happy if 250,000 of those can make it through that journey out.

Miller: Then on the way back, I imagine it’s even harder for a bunch of reasons, right?

Johnson: Right. They’re faced with fishing and sea lions and all kinds of predators. They’re getting through the fish ladders at the dam, and just that passage, warm water, all kinds of things as they make their way back up.

Miller: Do you ever have a sense for what a return is going to be, on any given year? Or is it just a kind of a black box until the fish counts come in?

Johnson: There’s a couple of things that clue us into what a return might be. Salmon come back in at multiple ages; some of them spend one year in the ocean, and some of them spend two or three years. We can get a sense of the return by the number of one year old fish that come back. [From that] we can get a sense of what the next couple of years are gonna be. We also closely monitor the ocean conditions, and we look at what survival estimates are as our juvenile fish go out. We can kind of get a sense, but we were surprised by the return this year. It was better than we expected.

Miller: Before the reintroduction in the Lostine River, my understanding is you did a fair amount of work in the Clearwater River Basin, which also goes into the Snake River, which goes into the Columbia. What did you learn from that project?

Johnson: Yes. So our work in the Lostine is based on what we did in the Clearwater. What happened in the Clearwater is the coho there were extirpated for quite a long time. There was a dam built across the Clearwater River in the 1920s that basically extirpated coho there for almost 100 years.

Miller: Extirpated means they weren’t there?

Johnson: Yes, they were extinct, basically. They were gone from that system for that long, for a very long time. We used the hatchery stock because that’s all there is to reintroduce. We released hatchery fish in the Clearwater River and waited for the return of adults from that release. We’ve been doing that now for almost 20 years or more, and what we discovered is when those adults from the fish that we release up here make it back, they have successfully, remember, again, made that journey 500 or 600 miles downstream over those dams, past all of the the gauntlet that they have to face, they have returned as adults that same way.

When the baby fish are being released up here, they imprint onto the water source that they’re released in, and that’s how they return here as adults. It’s a really cool science fish thing. What we are doing is using the adults that return here that have survived. They have the genetics that allowed them to survive that journey. We use those as the brood stock; we take those into the hatchery and spawn them, and brood their offspring. What we found is that those are better returning fish, because they have successfully made that journey and they pass that on to their offspring.

Miller: You’re selecting for the best ones, The ones who, for whatever reason, have been most able, they’ve proven themselves able to to go down and come back, and so they get to reproduce and be the stock for future hatchery fish.

Johnson: Yes, exactly. Because, remember, the founding stock that we started with didn’t have to pass any dance, and was only 100 or so miles from the ocean. We’re selecting for that ability to have long migrations and go through many challenges on their way.

Miller: My understanding is that coho runs have been up in other watersheds as well. Do fish scientists know why coho have done relatively well in the last couple years?

Johnson: I think generally the fish scientists would tell you that the reason we think the coho, this year especially, is better is because the ocean conditions where the coho were were better or good for them. Coho, when they go out to the ocean, tend to stay close to the shore of Washington and migrate north. Some of them migrate south along the coast of Oregon. The ocean conditions in that area were generally favorable for them this last season.

Miller: And that’s less true, say, for steelhead or chinook, or other fish that make these trips?

Johnson: Yes, I would say yes. Especially for steelhead. What we know about steelhead is they tend to head straight out into the ocean. In fact, we, the tribe, is also involved in growing steelhead at Dworchak National Fish Hatchery here on the Clearwater, and our steelhead have been found as far away as Russia. So they will go out to the Pacific Ocean and head straight out, and you may be familiar with what’s been called ‘the blob’ in the last few years, of warm marine environment due to climate change, and that’s really messed with some ocean conditions out there in the middle of the ocean.

Miller: Turning back to coho, I’m wondering: do successes like you’ve seen this year, and the kind of successes you’ve had for a couple years now, in different ways, even though the numbers have been up and down, have they made it harder for you to argue for the removal of the four Snake River Dams? If the Army Corps or lawmakers can say, hey, hatcheries are working! Stop telling us to get rid of these dams!

Johnson: That’s a great question. One thing it’s important for people to know is the reason that we have hatcheries is because there was so much habitat that was either removed from production or inundated for salmon. In the Columbia Basin alone, 55% of the habitat for salmon no longer remains. Hatcheries were built to mitigate that loss of habitat, right? So 55%. The assumption was that the natural production and the remaining 50% of the habitat would still continue. What we’re seeing is that natural production is not able to hold its own. In the Snake Basin we’re really at risk of losing our spring chinook and steelhead. There’s only so much hatcheries can do. We’re so excited about being able to put the coho back in northeast Oregon and such; that’s totally reliant on a hatchery program. If we stop those hatchery releases, we would expect that the coho returns would also go down. We released 1.5 million coho in the snake basin to get a 24,000 adult return. That’s less than 2% of a return. And we’re excited about that, right? So our natural fish are just barely, barely hanging on, and they’re at less than a 1% return. Unless we do something to remove those obstacles, we’re pretty sure that we’re going to lose our natural production of spring chinook and steelhead up here.

Miller: What’s next for your program?

Johnson: We want to continue to expand it in the Lostine. We’ve just done the hatchery releases of the stock that is from below Bonneville, and we want to start also collecting the adults, like we do in the Clearwater, of the fish that are returning to the Lostine River. So we’re hoping to continue to expand and grow it, and provide fishing opportunities in the Lostine. For the first time in, I don’t know, 50 years or so, people can actually fish for coho in northeast Oregon, which has not been the case.

Miller: Becky Johnson, thanks for your time today. I appreciate it.

Johnson: Yes, Thank you.

Miller: It’s Becky johnson. She is in charge of the Nez Perce tribe’s hatchery program.

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