Sockeye salmon to be returned to Skokomish River

HOODSPORT, Wash. (AP) - Sockeye salmon, missing from the Skokomish River for at least 90 years, will get a lift - literally - as Tacoma Public Utilities and the Skokomish Tribe work together to restore lost salmon species to the North Fork of the Skokomish.

A $50-million project, now under construction, includes two new salmon hatcheries plus an inclined railway and tram for transporting spawning salmon up a near-vertical cliff. The program also involves transporting fish by truck around the two Cushman Dams in the Olympic Mountains near Hoodsport.

For years, Tacoma and the Skokomish Tribe were stuck in litigation over a new license for the dams. In 2008, serious negotiations by both sides led to a deal and a renewed license two years later. The resulting agreement paid the tribe cash and lands valued at about $35 million plus a share of the revenues from power generation, along with a plan to improve the environment and restore salmon runs.

In addition to sockeye, a new native run of spring chinook will be established, while existing native runs of steelhead and coho will be expanded, all through hatchery operations.

Sockeye salmon, known for their red bodies and greenish heads, spawn in or near lakes, where they grow for one to three years before heading out to sea. Some tribal elders from the Skokomish Tribe recall seeing sockeye going up into a natural lake, which was inundated by the Cushman Reservoir when the first dam went in.

Habitat may have been limited by the small size of the original lake, but the idea of restoring sockeye has remained a goal of the tribe, and it became an integral part of the settlement, according to Alex Gouley, the tribe's habitat manager.

"We got that into the settlement as a priority, based on oral accounts of the elders," Gouley said. "It will provide another fish for ceremonial and subsistence use by the tribe, as well as recreational opportunities for the state (anglers)."

About 2 million sockeye eggs will be obtained from the state's Baker Lake sockeye hatchery in northern Puget Sound, according to Andy Ollenburg, manager of Cushman Fish Facilities for Tacoma Power. The fish will be reared to fingerling size at a new sockeye hatchery on Hood Canal near Potlatch. Because sockeye are prone to disease, the hatchery will release its freshwater into Hood Canal rather than risking exposures to fish in the Skokomish River.

The young sockeye will head from there out to sea. When they return as adults, they will become the parents of what Ollenburg hopes will become a new native run of sockeye making its home in Lake Cushman. If successful, it would become the only run of sockeye in Hood Canal.

A second hatchery is under construction near the lower dam, Cushman Dam Number 2. Plans call for rearing up to 375,000 spring chinook each year, with eggs taken from the state's Marblemount Hatchery in northern Puget Sound. The North Fork Hatchery also will be used to supplement native runs with annual releases of 15,000 steelhead and 35,000 coho.

When the new fish-collection facilities are completed this fall, the dams will no longer be a total blockage for migrating salmon swimming up the North Fork of the Skokomish, Ollenburg noted.

When originally built, Cushman Dam Number 2 essentially diverted all the flow out of the North Fork and into pipes down to Hood Canal, providing maximum power to the turbines near the shoreline. Over the years, Tacoma has been required to shift some of that water back into the natural channel. The new license establishes minimum flows based on the time of year.

Beginning this fall, when adult salmon swim upstream and arrive at the lower dam, they will be attracted into a fish trap by flows of water through a new power plant, built to take advantage of the increased flows in the North Fork.

"Since they can't jump over the dam," said Ollenburg, "we had to build an adult collection facility."

The captured fish will go into a hopper and move by tram up the side of the cliff and into a sorting facility, where they will be separated by species. If not needed for hatchery production, the fish will be trucked beyond Cushman Dam Number 1 and released into upper Cushman Lake, where they can find their way into the upper part of the North Fork.

A natural waterfalls about 2.5 miles downstream of the lower dam has become a significant fish barrier, given the controlled flows coming through the dams and down the North Fork. Work is underway at Little Falls to create resting pools and improve passage for salmon that can jump - particularly chinook, coho and sockeye.

Chum and pink salmon that make it over the falls and to the dam are expected to be returned downstream, since these species tend to favor the lower portion of rivers.

Young salmon reared in habitat above the dams will naturally migrate downstream when they feel the urge to head out to sea. As they approach the upper dam, Cushman Dam Number 1, they will begin to sense a rush of water - 250 cubic feet per second - going into a floating collection facility. The flow will carry the fish into a fish trap for transport to the sorting facility at the lower dam. After a portion of the fish are counted, measured and marked, the young fish will be ready for release.

"They will then take a ride down the tram," Ollenburg said, noting that they will be freed at the base of the lower dam.

Tacoma officials list the costs at $22 million for the floating collection facility at the upper dam; $15 million for the new powerhouse plus collection and sorting facilities at the lower dam; and $14 million for the two salmon hatcheries - one on Hood Canal, the other near the lower dam.

An extensive monitoring program is part of the project, and about $3.5 million a year has been set aside for ongoing habitat restoration.

"We're trying to get our arms around how many fish the lake can support," Ollenburg said, "and we're trying to figure out what we can do to increase the carrying capacity of the lake and the river."