CLE ELUM — Carcasses dot the banks of the Cle Elum River bank, signifying an end as well as a beginning.
Here, some 18 miles northwest of Cle Elum, are the bodies of adult fish who completed the arduous, several-hundred-mile journey from the Pacific Ocean to reproduce and perish.
Just feet away, females linger over their nests as males lurk nearby, their sleek red bodies easily visible in the clear river water. The males at this stage in their lives are called yellowbacks because the scales along their spines have been rubbed off during fights with other males as they vie for the right to fertilize a female’s eggs.
More than a century after their runs up the Cle Elum River were wiped out by dams, the sockeye are spawning again.
This is the fourth year of an effort to reintroduce this prized salmon species back into the Yakima River Basin. The Yakama Nation is overseeing the program, which collected Wenatchee and Okanogan sockeye salmon at Priest Rapids Dam about three months ago and trucked them to Lake Cle Elum for release.
A total of 10,000 wild sockeye were released in the lake this year, a number that has grown steadily each year because of the abundance of the Columbia River sockeye run. The Yakama Nation will take fish at Priest Rapids after the overall run reaches 80,000 fish.
The total Columbia River run this year approached 600,000 fish.
Ultimately, the hope is for a self-sustaining run of Yakima River sockeye that will allow for a sport fishery.
Restoring sockeye to Lake Cle Elum is made possible by a crude fish passage system at the spillway to the 437,000-acre-foot lake. A flume allows smolts to escape to the downstream Cle Elum River. Returning adults — the offspring of the first group planted in the lake — are expected to return next year. After making their way up the Yakima River toward Lake Cle Elum, they will be collected at Roza Dam, north of Yakima, where it is easiest to capture them before they encounter the lake’s massive dam. They will then be trucked to the lake.
The wooden flume is supposed to be replaced in the next few years by a multistory fish release facility that will allow fish to escape the lake during both high and low water levels.
Lake Cle Elum sockeye died out more than a century ago when the high-mountain lakes like this one were dammed for irrigation. The dams blocked access to the tributaries above the lakes where the fish laid their eggs.
Tribal staff have been surveying the number of nests laid this year. Some 2,000 adult fish have been sighted on the spawning grounds, meaning many thousands more are still to spawn.
Brian Saluskin, fish passage biologist for the Yakama Nation, said spawning this year began shortly after Labor Day and is expected to continue as late as early November. An initial wave of fish are spawning now and another group, likely the Okanogan species, is about to start.
The lateness is related the sockeye being new to this lake.
“I think it has to do with not being familiar with this area and taking their time,” said Saluskin.
Biologists say sockeye was a prized fish because it arrived for spawning later than other salmon and provided a food source that carried the Yakamas through the winter months. Dried sockeye also was used in trading with Western Washington tribes. Below the lake, there’s evidence of longhouses and encampments by Indians drawn to the sockeye.
Mark Johnston, a research scientist for the Yakama Nation, called the reintroduction a unique opportunity to restore sockeye to the Yakima basin, using two different species of sockeye.
“We are hoping for crosses of the two to get the best of both,” he said. “We are letting the fish figure it out and letting them tell us whether it works or not.”
The spawning has attracted onlookers to this spot at the Cooper Lake Bridge, at the north end of the lake, one of several locations where the fish are visible. Biologists caution, however, that viewers should not disturb the fish while they expend the last of their reservoirs to continue the species. Catching sockeye is forbidden and will expose poachers to fines by state Department of Fish and Wildlife enforcement officers.
On Friday, Joe Moreland, 10th-grade biology teacher at the Yakama Tribal School in Toppenish, brought his students to see the spawning activity.
“This is a chance for them to see something that has a tie-in with their culture,” Moreland said.
Melannie Belly, 15, was among the bus load of tribal school students.
“It’s cool,” she said of the visit. “But it’s hard to see them dead.”
Their deaths are part of the cycle of life, providing nutrients that provide a foundation for the rest of the food chain, including eagles and bears.
“They bring a big load of nutrients from the ocean back to the river,” said nation senior research scientist Dave Fast. “It’s all part of the cycle to increase the productivity of the watershed with nutrients that produce a lot more fish.”