Learning from the past for a sustainable future
Bringing the Salmon Home: The Columbia River Salmon Reintroduction Initiative draws on Indigenous knowledge and western science with the intent of understanding the feasibility, risks, and benefits of different options to reintroduce salmon. Indigenous Nations and Native American Tribes have been working together for decades to return salmon across borders to the upper Columbia region.
There are incredible successes to learn from. The Syilx Okanagan Nation has persevered for years—with key support from US Tribes and partners—overcoming what many considered to be impossible odds to return annual runs of hundreds of thousands of sockeye salmon into Okanagan territory today. The Nation is now beginning to reintroduce chinook into the Okanagan system. n’titxw (Chief Salmon) is a primary food mainstay of the Syilx Okanagan peoples and central to Syilx culture and trade traditions.
The Ktunaxa Nation continues to steward ancestral salmon beds and habitat at the source of the Columbia river in preparation for the fishes’ return.
The Secwepemc Nation is likewise steadfast in demonstrating leadership in re-establishing salmon to the upper Columbia as a sacred responsibility.
Salmon restoration in this region was formally initiated as a joint effort of the Ktunaxa, Syilx Okanagan and Secwepemc Nations in the early 1990s with the formation of the Canadian Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fisheries Commission (CCRIFC.) The three Nations’ collaboration extends to participation in the Upper Columbia United Tribes (UCUT), actively working to reintroduce salmon above the Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee Dams. Coordinated learning and efforts also take place with the Colville Confederated Tribes, and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC).
Historic distribution of salmon in Upper Columbia River Basin
Historically, Pacific salmon occupied an extensive area of the upper Columbia River Basin upstream of Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee Dams (located in Washington State). This area extended well into Canada and included distributions of sockeye and chinook salmon, as well as steelhead1. The area in southeastern BC is the priority focus for the Bringing the Salmon Home initiative.
Chinook and sockeye salmon are of specific interest – understanding that other fish species and related habitats are also vital.
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Also known as Red Salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka)
Before Grand Coulee Dam blocked salmon passage in 1939, there were 14-18 nursery lakes for sockeye salmon across the entire upper Columbia River Basin. Within the Canadian portion, sockeye salmon inhabited the Upper Arrow, Lower Arrow, and Slocan Lakes, and may have also used Christina, Kinbasket, Windermere, and Columbia Lakes, although this distribution is highly uncertain. Spawning and incubation occurred in many of the tributaries to these lakes.
Also known as Spring, King, Tyee (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha)
Historically, spring, summer, and fall run chinook salmon inhabited extensive habitat within the Canadian Columbia River basin. The species had unrestricted access to the mainstem of the Columbia River throughout its course to Columbia Lake, the mainstem of the Pend d’Oreille River below Metaline Falls, and 80 kilometers of the Kootenay River and its tributaries below Bonnington Falls (including the Slocan River). Chinook salmon may have also utilized the Kettle River, but habitat is likely to have been restricted by a natural falls a short distance upstream of the US-Canada border.
Sockeye and chinook salmon. Photos by Eiko Jones
There is currently no knowledge of historic habitat use of coho salmon in the Canadian portion of the Columbia River Basin, though the Syilx Okanagan recognize coho utilization in the Okanagan River, and expect there may have been access to some regions of the lower basin.
Prior to construction of Grand Coulee Dam, steelhead inhabited the accessible section of the Kettle River in BC, the Pend d’Oreille River below Metaline Falls, the 84 kilometres of the Salmo River and its tributaries, as well as the lower Kootenay River below Bonnington Falls. It is expected that steelhead occupied similar tributary habitats to spring run chinook salmon.
It is not possible to estimate the relative or absolute amount of total salmon production attributable to the Canadian portion of the Columbia River Basin prior to the construction of Grand Coulee Dam based on direct observations from the historical record. Model-based reconstructions of salmon abundance in Canada have not been completed, though are possible. There is, however, evidence that suggests that the historical average returning spawner abundance above Grand Coulee Dam across years was somewhere between 2.6 and 3.7 million adults across all salmon species, with maximum spawner abundance being substantially higher in any given year.
Hugh Keenleyside Dam on Columbia River near Castlegar, BC. Photo: Columbia Basin Trust
Salmon reintroduction needs – current state of knowledge
In recent years, substantial progress has been made in assessment and planning to support long-term reintroduction efforts. Salmon reintroduction efforts in the upper Columbia River Basin will require management actions supported by advancements in Indigenous and western science knowledge and technology related to:
- upstream and downstream passage (e.g., passage structures and technologies);
- donor stocks, use of hatcheries, and reintroduction/release strategies;
- flow management and hydro-electric operations;
- habitat assessment, restoration, and enhancement (e.g., historic to future potential of mainstem, tributary, reservoir habitats to sustain salmon);
- ecosystem interactions and risks (e.g., competition, predation, endangered species, pathogen transfer, and ecosystem linkages); and
- climate change interactions and influences.
1 This summary about the historical distribution and abundance is largely based on historical records of catch, estimate of protein requirements for the Indigenous population, and abundance reconstruction methods prior to hydro-electric development as described in Scholz, A., K. O’Laughlin, D. Geist, J. Uehara, D. Peone, L. Fields, T. Kleist, I. Zozaya, T. Peone, and K. Teesatuskie. 1985. Compilation of information on salmon and steelhead total run size, catch and hydropower related losses in the upper Columbia River Basin, above Grand Coulee Dam. Eastern Washington University. 165 pp. Available at: https://www.nwcouncil.org/reports/compilation-information-salmon-and-steelhead-total-run-size-catch-and-hydropower-related