Tribal staff and volunteers work to rebuild salmon run
BANDON, Ore. – “Buck.”
Tuesdays are spawning days at the Bandon Hatchery, and Manager David Welch is sorting salmon. Waist-deep in a holding pond, he catches fish in a net, glances at each one, and tosses it into a pen.
Adult male “bucks” go into one pen. “Jacks” – overeager male adolescents that swam home a year early – go in another. “Green” females, still a few weeks premature for spawning, land in yet another.
When Welch finds a fully mature, spawning-ready female, he holds her up for helper Kassandra Rippee. Armed with a wooden club, Rippee steels herself for her task.
This is the chilly, wet, sometimes bloody business of saving the Coquille River’s fall Chinook salmon. Two months ago, the Coquille Indian Tribal Council declared an emergency, pledging the tribe’s resources to save the alarmingly depleted fishery.
Rippee is the tribe’s archaeologist and historic preservation officer. On this day, however, she and two other tribal employees are fish wranglers, partnering with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s hatchery team.
Tribal employees, tribal members and other volunteers were busy throughout October, mostly gathering fish for the hatchery. Sometimes they stretched nets across creek channels. Other times they waded upstream, herding fish ahead of them – and away from the threat of hungry seals.
The tribe’s project, led by tribal biologist Helena Linnell, is showing promise. At the end of October, 81 salmon had arrived at the hatchery. That’s a long way from the goal of 70 breeding pairs, but it far exceeds 2020’s total of just 16 fish. And the season is not yet finished.
Another bright spot: The presence of 13 jacks suggests a stronger run in 2022, when those jacks’ brothers and sisters will show up as adults.
At the hatchery, Welch leads the crew through a time-honored procedure. Three female salmon are ready for spawning today. So Rod Knoebel, an ODFW senior technician, squeezes sperm from three adult males. Todd Martin, a tribal spouse who works with Rippee in historical preservation, catches the liquid in separate paper cups.
Next, Welch and Knoebel harvest eggs from the three lifeless females – typically between 2,000 and 5,000 per fish. Each batch is separated into three plastic dishes, to be fertilized with sperm from all three males. This process, Welch explains, creates nine parent groups, maximizing the new salmon generation’s genetic diversity.
Whether in the wild or in a hatchery, spawning is the final act of a salmon’s life. After collecting tissue samples for laboratory testing, Welch will return the carcasses to the river, to decompose and nourish new life.
The hatchery normally has three employees, but one position is temporarily vacant. So the tribe’s collaboration is particularly welcome.
“I don’t know where we’d be without that,” Welch says.
Tribal employees are clearly passionate about the work. Biologist Linnell and technician Kristopher Murphy have worked long hours throughout October. Murphy, a tribal member, estimates 10-15 hours a day, with rarely a day off. But no complaints.
“I’m all for it,” he says. “I want to help as much as I can.”
Linnell, a 15-year veteran of fisheries work, agrees: “This is a labor of love and one I am very passionate about. I will work as hard as I can, so we can once again harvest fall Chinook and see more of them back on the spawning grounds.”
Helena Linnell, the Coquille Tribe’s biological operations and planning manager, secures a newly netted salmon in Ferry Creek, while her helpers turn toward the next target.
Tribal employee Kassandra Rippee stands ready for an unpleasant but necessary chore, readying a female salmon for egg harvesting.
Tribal staff member Todd Martin, right, works with ODFW’s Rod Knoebel to collect sperm from a male salmon. The salmon’s red color indicates its readiness for spawning. Behind him, Hatchery Manager David Welch watches from a holding pond.
With clicker in hand, tribal member Kristopher Murphy counts salmon eggs at the Bandon Hatchery.
Coquille River salmon run needs robust brood stock
BANDON – A rarely used technique gave a welcome boost to early prospects for successful salmon spawning in the Coquille River.
Coquille Indian Tribe employees and community volunteers gathered Tuesday, Sept. 28, in downtown Bandon, where Ferry Creek enters the Coquille River. Using a wide net, they corralled six adult Chinook salmon for delivery to the Bandon Hatchery.
“As we know, the numbers of returning fall chinook have drastically declined to record-setting lows,” said Helena Linnell, the tribe’s biological operations and planning manager. “And so, the effort to secure brood stock is vitally important to making sure that this fishery continues into the future for the next seven generations.”
Above, Tribal Council member Don Garrett celebrates a successful evening of salmon seining.
At left, volunteers haul in the net.
Last year, just 16 fall Chinook reached the Bandon Hatchery to spawn. Linnell called this week’s event “a great first step.” She and other officials hope the six captured fish are the vanguard of a more robust 2021 spawning season.
Fall Chinook salmon have grown so scarce on the Coquille River that the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife allowed no Chinook fishing this year. The tribe, alarmed by the salmon run’s decline, recently proposed to co-manage the salmon fishery, offering its own resources to augment ODFW’s budget.
The Sept. 28 event was an example of increasing collaboration to save the fall run. The occasion attracted an assortment of tribal employees and community volunteers, including local port officials and members of the Oregon Anglers Alliance. ODFW provided a specially equipped boat, the net, and a truck carrying a holding tank.
The net, known as a seine, is long and narrow, with floats at its top and weights on its bottom. Linnell and a helper deployed it from a boat, and men in waders dragged it through the shallows. They formed a moving, flexible fence, slowly herding the fish toward shore.
With the salmon increasingly boxed in, team members gently caught each fish in a landing net. Then they hustled it up the beach to the truck. The six salmon were deposited in the Bandon Hatchery’s holding pond, about two miles upstream.
Tribal biologist Helena Linnell, aided by Bandon Port Manager Jeff Griffin, totes a salmon to a holding tank.
Seining salmon for brood stock is an unusual tactic in salmon management, and using it shows just how concerned biologists are about the Coquille River’s fall run. With increased water temperatures and predatory seals to contend with, fish that gather at the mouth of the creek might or might not reach the hatchery on their own.
“We had the opportunity to take some of those early returners and get them out of an inhospitable situation,” said tribal Chairman Brenda Meade.
Meade, whose ancestors regarded salmon as their own seagoing cousins, was delighted by the season’s hopeful start.
“It was the first sign of our relatives returning,” Meade said.
The bulk of the fall run normally comes in early October. As the spawning season proceeds, the Coquille Indian Tribe plans to recruit and deploy more volunteers.
I’m Brenda Meade, chairman of the Coquille Indian Tribe. Coquille River salmon have nourished my people for countless generations. Our ancestors have relished and revered these amazing fish since time began.
But a tragedy has struck in the past few years. Fall Chinook salmon have nearly disappeared from the Coquille River.
Barely a decade ago, in 2010, more than 30,000 fall run Chinook returned to spawn in the river. In recent years, that number has shrunk to just a few hundred. These wonderful fish are on the edge of extinction.
What’s killing our salmon?
Several issues have come together to cause this tragedy:
Invasive bass species devour juvenile salmon on their way to the ocean.
Year after year, ODFW’s brood stock collection falls short of its goals, while seals feast on adult salmon returning to spawn in the river.
Pollution, sediment and warmer water impede the salmon life cycle.
Old, deteriorated fish hatcheries produce too few smolts.
Rigid state policies prevent effective management.
The Coquille River is a low priority in the state budget.
We’re stepping up
Despite these challenges, we believe the Coquille River’s fall Chinook salmon still can be saved. In the summer of 2021, the Coquille Tribe proposed to partner with the State of Oregon on this issue.
We are developing a new kind of cooperative relationship with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife – to address the salmon crisis, and ultimately to co-manage the Coquille watershed. We will collaborate with state and local officials, landowners and sportsmen to clean up the river, thwart the predators, revitalize the hatcheries and restore habitat.
How it’s going
Together with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife plus local volunteers, we collected 24 breeding pairs of fall Chinook salmon in 2021. That’s a great first step: 700 percent better than 2020. See details below.
Volunteer to help – We’ll need help with the hatchery, habitat projects and more. Or just let us list you as a Community Partner.
Catch some bass – Stripers and smallmouth bass are bad for salmon, but they’re good for dinner, and the Coquille River has no limit on them.
Share your story – Tell us your memories of salmon fishing on the Coquille River.
City of Bandon
“We join the Coquille Indian Tribe in sounding the alarm about the salmon’s plight.” Full text
City of Myrtle Point
“In just the past decade, what previously was a lively sport fishery has dwindled to almost no fish at all.” Full text
“When the shocking news came this spring from ODF&W that the Coquille River would be completely closed to all salmon fishing in 2021, it spelled more disaster for our community.” Full text
Port of Bandon
“We urge your support to rescue this ancient and cherished resource from extinction.” Full text
Coquille Watershed Association
“In the face of climate change, land use and water quality issues, it is critical to act now to reverse alarming trends in the watershed.” Full text
Shoreline Education and Awareness
“Limited resources have hobbled the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife efforts to restore the Coquille River’s Chinook population. The Coquille Tribe’s experience, motivation and resources are essential for restoring the salmon population in the river.”Full text
Coos County Commissioners
“Cooperative management offers our best possible hope for success in saving the fall-run Chinook salmon and improving the health the watershed.” Full text
City of Coquille
“Combining resources and involving a more vested local voice and action plan can prove to be very effective.”Full text
City of Powers
“We urge you to accept the tribe’s help and build an effective coalition to heal our watershed.” Full text
Port of Coquille River
“Already this fall, we are seeing positive results from the tribe’s participation and leadership in organizing a cooperative local response.” Full text
Bay Area Chamber
“We join other local voices to endorse the Coquille Tribe’s co-management proposal.” Full text