A single sockeye’s homecoming brings hope to the Yakima Basin

Summer 2013

One hundred years. That’s how long it’s been since native sockeye populations inhabited the lakes of the Yakima Basin. Over 200,000 sockeye returned to the arid basin historically, but in the early 1900s the watershed was dammed to support irrigated agriculture in the Yakima valley. As the dams went up the runs fell down. By the 1990s, without suitable fish passage available, the shimmering blue-back salmon declined to extinction—until now. 

man unloading sockeye from truck

In 2009, the Yakama Nation implemented a program to reintroduce sockeye into the basin. The Tribe collected 1,000 adult fish at Priest Rapids Dam and transported them to Lake Cle Elum, where they were released to spawn naturally in the watershed. The fish included sockeye from both the Wenatchee and Okanogan populations. These fish were selected because their genetic make-up was likely similar to that of the historical sockeye population in the Yakima Basin. By 2010, the number of sockeye released into the watershed grew to 2,600, and in 2011 the Tribe released an additional 4,600 fish. The large sockeye returns in 2012 allowed for the release of another 10,000 adults—the maximum number of fish authorized for release.

The first adults, offspring of the initial 1,000 fish released in 2009, were slated to return to the basin this year, and Yakama Nation biologists now are witnessing the restoration of the runs first hand. The first sockeye successfully passed Prosser Dam this June and migrated an additional 80 miles to Roza Dam, where she was transported upstream and released above the dam into Lake Cle Elum. In total, 575 sockeye have returned to the Yakima this season and the numbers will continue to mount through August. Tribal biologists are monitoring the returns, and with each sockeye’s arrival, memories of a thriving run no longer seem so distant. “When we bring back the fish, we also bring back the health of our people,” says Russell Jim, Yakama elder. “Our DNA is tied to this river and we need the resources it provides.”

The sockeye reintroduction program is part of the Yakama Nation’s effort to restore native salmon populations to each of the basin’s historical lakes. As part of the Tribe’s All Species Initiative, a component of the Yakima/Klickitat Fisheries Project, the Tribe is working with the Bureau of Reclamation and other partners to provide fish passage and resurrect vital fish habitat. Similar reintroduction efforts for coho have yielded runs exceeding 10,000 fish.

NOAA supported this effort with funds from the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund, a competitive grant program dedicated to restoring Pacific salmon runs and their habitats. The reintroduction of the Yakima Basin’s native sockeye run contributes to the recovery of threatened and endangered salmon populations. Most importantly, it brings to life a shared vision in which healthy, harvestable returns of sockeye return to a basin they have not seen in over a century.

Photo above: Yakama Nation member handling returned adult sockeye. 

Home page and story photos courtesy the Yakama Nation.