Archie Cantrell, Puyallup Tribe of Indians, loads spring chinook into a tanker truck. More images of the transfer are available here: http://go.nwifc.org/whiteriver

The Puyallup Tribe of Indians is helping to fund a program that is restoring spring chinook in the upper White River watershed.

“For over 18 years we’ve been working with the state to release juvenile spring chinook produced at the Minter Creek hatchery into acclimation ponds in the upper White River,” said Russ Ladley, resource protection manager for the Puyallup Tribe.

But because of budget cuts, the state couldn’t afford a special fin-clipping process for the young salmon, so that tribe is pitching in. “We clip one of the ventral fins on the chinook so when they return as adults they can be identified,” Ladley said. Returning adults are caught in a trap near Buckley. Those with clipped ventral fins are released to the upper watershed to spawn.

“If the tribe hadn’t paid for the special clipping so these fish could contribute to recovery of this endangered run, they would’ve just been released to contribute to recreational fisheries,” Ladley said.

After being transported to the acclimation ponds, the juvenile spring chinook will be fed by the tribe for eight weeks. Once they are imprinted on the upper watershed creeks, they’ll be released to begin their journey to the ocean.

The spring chinook program at Minter Creek began in the 1970s when the state began capturing fish for broodstock from the weak early run. “At the time, there was a chance that so few fish would return that the run would blink out,” Ladley said. When the Muckleshoot Tribe opened a hatchery on the White River, fisheries managers began releasing the spring chinook back to the White River to supplement the hatchery program.

In 1986 only six spring chinook returned to the White River, putting the viability of the run in question. Because of diligent hatchery management, the spring chinook population on the White River has slowly increased since 1986, with returns now normally in the thousands.

The acclimation pond program has played a large role in the recovery of the spring stock.“We’ve seen increasing returns to White River tributaries in the upper river,” said Blake Smith, Puyallup tribal enhancement manager. “Huckleberry Creek, in particular, is showing a very clear trend. We went from zero redds to an average of 35 for the last eleven years.” Redds are nests that salmon dig in riverbed gravel to lay their eggs.

“It is important that spring chinook are released in the upper watershed, because some of the best habitat and the best chance for the chinook to recover is up there,” Ladley said. “If spring chinook are going to recover in the White River, they are going to do it in the upper watershed.”

Video of the transfer available here:

Puyallup Tribe White River chinook transfer 2012 from NW Indian Fisheries Commission on Vimeo.