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Near record-low returns of spring chinook to South Umpqua

October 22, 2018

ROSEBURG, Ore. (AP) — Historically, spring chinook have returned to the South Umpqua River by the thousands, spending time in deep, cool pools in the summer before spawning in the fall.

Greg Huchko with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said his department has been doing snorkel counts of the species for the past 40 years.

This year they counted 28 fish that had returned to their natal pools — the second lowest since the department started recording the numbers.

“Obviously it’s been a red flag for us,” Huchko said.

Loss of spawning habitat, warming river temperatures, predation and ocean acidification are all contributing to their decline.

Huchko said ODFW would like to see the population around 600, although the species has been hovering around 170 on average.

He said if there are successive years of abysmally low numbers going into the future, it could be catastrophic.

“If that were to perpetuate, then the likelihood of extinction is there and is real,” Huchko said.

Jeff Dose, a retired fish biologist with the Umpqua National Forest, said one year’s return doesn’t necessarily mean there’s going to be 28 again next year.

“There could be 300 next year,” Dose said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen next year. There may be none next year; we don’t know.”

He said the numbers suggest that the species may hang on for a while at low numbers.

Dose said the accounts that point to thousands of fish once being in the South Umpqua in the early 1900′s are estimates based on harvest records.

Spring chinook salmon return to their spawning grounds from the ocean in February and March. As temperatures rise, the fish start looking for pools to stay in during the summer before they spawn in September and October.

Unlike their spring counterparts, fall chinook start entering the rivers in September and spawn shortly after.

A study released by the University of California Davis last year was confirmation of what many already knew — these fish are unique.

Stan Petrowski, president of Umpqua Watersheds, said the fundamental assumption was that spring and summer chinook were all one species, but DNA testing proved otherwise.

Through a DNA analysis, the authors of the study found that early-migrating fish like spring chinook and summer steelhead depend on a single gene that makes them head inland sooner than their fall and winter counterparts. It also found that the gene evolved once in each species, meaning that if they go extinct, they’re not likely to re-evolve.

The findings could have implications for future management of spring chinook, which aren’t currently considered distinct from Fall chinook — a species that is doing relatively well in the North Umpqua River with thousands returning each year.

Petrowski said Umpqua Watersheds is working with the Forest Service to improve habitat and retain spawning gravel on the South Umpqua.

“If you give them half a chance, they respond,” Petrowski said. “We’ve seen that with coho, and we’re sure we can see it with the spring chinook.”

While the “springers” may not look different than fall chinook, they have a higher fat content and are high in Omega 3 fatty acids.

The fish was an important food source for native tribes, which have gathered on the South Umpqua River for thousands of years.

Kelly Coates, a water and environmental resources program manager with the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, said salmon were such a culturally significant food source for her ancestors that they had a name for them in their native language.

“Anytime an animal actually had a name you know it was really important to them,” Coates said.

Each year, Coates said the tribe holds a first salmon ceremony on the South Umpqua River that serves as a coming of age for young men and also honors the fish that feed them.

“Part of the significance of the ceremony is to put some good out there in order to have increased returns of fish,” Coates said.

Coates is a fish biologist by trade and said her passion for fisheries came from the tribe’s connection to natural resources.

“The tribal connection to natural resources was huge for me growing up. I did a lot of hunting and fishing with my parents, and that was a big influence,” Coates said.

For her, it’s important to ensure that salmon are part of her future and, also, her children’s future.

“It would be really sad and very disheartening if I knew that my daughters were not going to get to see chinook salmon at South Umpqua Falls like I have, or that there were no returning salmon for our salmon ceremony,” Coates said.

Jake Crawford, River Steward Program Director with the Native Fish Society, said all the contributing factors to the fish’s decline are combining in a way that’s making it tough for them to survive.

“The South Umpqua was historically more abundant than the North Umpqua,” Crawford said. “And it has just seen dramatic declines across the fish populations over the last 30 to 50 years, if not longer.

“To see such dramatic declines in one watershed in real time means there’s some serious issues going on.”

Last year, the Karuk Tribe and Salmon River Restoration Council petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to list the Upper Klamath-Trinity River chinook as threatened or endangered. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is going through a yearlong process to evaluate whether to list the species or create a new Evolutionary Significant Unit to describe Klamath spring chinook.

Crawford said that could provide a pathway for other unique spring chinook to be awarded the same protections.

Dose, the retired fish biologist, said hatcheries aren’t the solution.

“The science of fisheries management has in recent years has really studied the impacts that hatcheries programs are having on our salmon and steelhead,” Dose said. “And they’re adverse. Primary cause is that it’s artificially made selection.”

He said natural selection thins out fish that aren’t suitable fairly quickly, but just the opposite happens in hatcheries.

The hatchery fish that do survive have far less genetic diversity and can reduce the productivity of the next generation by 20 percent, Dose said.

“Those all the play a role in diminishing wild populations,” Dose said.

Under good ocean conditions, Dose said around 10 percent of smolts will survive to adulthood, with hatchery numbers around half that.

Under bad ocean conditions, that number drops to around 2 percent, Dose said, with hatchery fish surviving less than 1 percent of the time.

“They’re taking resources, and then they don’t even survive,” Dose said.

Although hatcheries may not be the solution, Dose said that even attempts at stream restoration — adding logs to create relief pools and creating gravel bars for spawning — is treating a symptom.

Some factors are out of anyone’s control — like ocean conditions and global climate.

Dose said if spring chinook were identified as a true population they would be eligible for listing under the Federal Endangered Species Act.

“These are a unique population that if they’re gone, they’re gone, and they’re not going to ever be restored,” Dose said. “Unfortunately throughout the Pacific Northwest there have been hundreds of populations like this that have gone extinct. Many, many, many, hundreds of them, of unique populations of salmon and steelhead, are gone. And they’ll never come back.”

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Information from: The News-Review, http://www.nrtoday.com

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