Fishing for the future
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.”
Fish wrangling will continue through November. Prospective volunteers should email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- 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.