Quest for 100K - an initiative to improve the Willamette Spring Chinook Run

I recently became involved in the Quest for 100K, an initiative to return 100,000 spring Chinook annually to the Willamette River. The goal seems achievable but will require cooperation from many groups and organizations as well as the three million Oregonians who live in the river's watershed.

The goal was initiated by the Association of Northwest Steelheaders and was launched on Tuesday, Jan. 9. 

The launch featured representatives from ODFW, PGE, Oregon Guides, NWS, politicians and recreational anglers (although I expected a few more anglers at the event). 
Launch of Quest for 100K

It was great to hear talk of encouraging all fish and conservation groups to join forces in this effort. Historically 300K spring Chinook returned annually to this watershed, in addition to other salmon and steelhead runs. Listening to the discussion, there are complex issues and enormous challenges ahead:
  • Predation - In the February 2018 issue of Salmon Trout and Steelhead, Publisher Frank Amato points out that seals, killer whales and sea lions have increased between 1975 and 2010 with the greatest increase in California Sea Lions. In January, NOAA released a report stating the population has fully rebounded under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Willamette Falls has experienced a significant increase in sea lions and seals during the past 20 years and the sea lions are blamed for the endangered steelhead stocks.
  • Climate change - Think of the fish die-offs, warm water temperatures and lower rivers of 2015. Add the extreme weather seen this year across the country, plus a lack of cooperation and leadership in Washington and we should all get ready for a wild ride.
  • Wild stocks - Wild salmon and steelhead typically have a higher rate of returning adults, especially when they can spawn in a healthy watershed. Unfortunately, not all Willamette River watersheds are healthy, and several are blocked by dams. As a result of these and other issues, several wild stocks are on the endangered list and will likely go extinct unless something changes.
  • Hatcheries - The hatcheries were designed to make up for fish lost due to dams or over fishing, and allow anglers to keep salmon and steelhead. Unfortunately, hatchery fish returns are declining in the Willamette River, especially as the initial stocks deteriorate due to a lack of genetic diversity. Hatchery fish also impact wild stocks by competing for limited environmental resources. Most hatcheries are also old and do not incorporate modern stream engineering or include wild brood stocks. 
  • Dams - Dams on several tributaries of the Willamette River are extremely tall and moving wild fish above and below the structures is difficult or impossible leaving miles of spawning habitat underutilized.
  • Watershed degradation - Countless volunteer hours and millions of dollars have been spent improving watersheds and more work is still needed after decades of good intentions gone bad.
  • Superfund sites - Several sites on the lower Willamette River need work and will impact the salmon as they move up and down the river.
  • Restaurants - Yes, you should think twice about ordering that wild steelhead or salmon on the menu.
  • Agricultural runoff - The Willamette Valley is one of the most productive in the country but agriculture also requires chemicals that can end up in the Willamette River and tributaries.
  • Columbia River spillage - Since a judge's order to spill more water over the Columbia River dams, salmon runs that were nearly extinct are seeing significant returns and could be a benefit to moving Willamette River smolts downstream. The trade-off is less electricity for humans.
  • Nets - Gillnets on they lower river were to be removed and anglers charged a special fee to support the removal but the nets are still used every year.
  • There are more global and regionals issues including ocean conditions, overfishing, human population, etc. 
There is a lot of passion among anglers and conservation groups, and some great work has already been done on the Clackamas and McKenzie rivers to improve wild salmon and hatchery returns. There efforts are similar to those on the Columbia River (spillage) and Sandy River (dam removal and wild fish recovery) that could be leveraged to reach the 100K spring Chinook goal. 

The following Sunday, I joined the group and attended a Ron Wyden town hall in Clackamas. We had the single largest group in attendance. In a random drawing, five of us, including me, were chosen to speak. After the fourth person talked about Willamette River salmon, I asked about climate change and if there was any leadership in Washington, or will we get what we will get when we reach the finish line. 

Wyden talked about bills he introduced to encourage renewable energy but they were never voted on. What I felt was the real answer is that we may already have missed the  opportunity to stop climate change and we are on the bus and must do everything we can to make sure the ride doesn't end in disaster. 

As you can see, there are many factors at play and the Quest for 100K will not be a simple or short term effort. Bob Rees, who is leading the effort, believes it will take at least 10 year to accomplish the goal. 

I encourage you to learn more about this initiative as it rolls out over the next several years. It will certainly be exciting since the majority of Oregonians live in and around this watershed, and will likely be impacted or have some say in the fish that define Oregon and the Northwest.

Go Farther. Catch More.

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