Tuesday, September 6, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Baker River Salmon Pass While Other Fish Runs Fail -- Imperiled Sockeye Return To Spawn In Record Numbers

CONCRETE, Skagit County - This is a good-news story about salmon - something that, in this dismal year, is about as rare as a fish on a bicycle.

Baker River sockeye, considered among the most imperiled stocks in Washington, have returned to spawn in record numbers this summer. About 16,000 have negotiated the left turn from the Skagit into the Baker, the largest number in at least 70 years.

The jumbo run represents an astounding turnaround from the 1980s, when the annual return topped 1,000 just once. In 1985 only 99 fish came back to the Baker, the lowest total on record.

"We got more than a wake-up call that year," says Steve Fransen, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who has been working with Baker River sockeye ever since.

The problem? Scientists still aren't absolutely certain. But they did learn that not enough young, ocean-going fish were surviving the journey down the Baker, past Puget Sound Power & Light Co.'s two big dams.

State, federal, tribal and Puget Power biologists have been searching for a solution for the past nine years. "I think there's enough circumstantial evidence now to suggest we're on the right track," Fransen says.

Less than two years ago, state and tribal officials rated Baker River sockeye among the dozen most threatened salmon stocks in Washington. The Professional Resource Organization for Salmon (PROS), an association of state fisheries professionals, petitioned the federal government to add the fish to the endangered-species list just last spring.

The National Marine Fisheries Service hasn't acted on that request yet. "But, obviously, this record return puts a different light on the Baker River stock," says Lee Blankenship, PROS president.

One good year does not a comeback make. But excited biologists are hopeful some of the 4-year-old fish will swim into the river's upper reaches this fall and spawn in North Cascades National Park, for the first time anyone can remember.

If the turnaround continues, Fransen says, commercial or recreational harvest could be allowed as soon as 1996.

The Baker River revival seems especially extraordinary in this year of unbroken gloom for Northwest salmon.

Ocean fishing has been virtually shut down to protect weak coho stocks. Snake River chinook have just been reclassified from threatened to endangered.

More runs appear headed for the endangered-species list. Interest groups and agencies squabble over who's to blame and what should be done.

Those involved in the Baker River sockeye's turnaround haven't discovered any magic potion to bring the Northwest's salmon back from the brink. But if they've been successful, Fransen says, it may be because everyone cooperated instead of pointing fingers.

Wild country feeds tame river

The Baker River drains some of the wildest country in the North Cascades - Mount Baker, Mount Shuksan, the Picket Range. But most of the river is tame.

Puget Power's dams, built in 1925 and 1959, created two long reservoirs, Lake Shannon and Baker Lake, that stretch from the river's mouth almost to the national park. Together, the projects last year produced about 3 percent of Puget Power's electricity.

Until the 1970s, the dams and the sockeye appeared to coexist, although the stock's survival depended on the kindness of humans.

Returning adults relied on Puget Power tank trucks, called "fish taxis," for transportation around the impassable, 300-foot-high dams.

They mated in artificial "spawning beaches" - large, spring-fed, gravel-lined ponds near Baker Lake - built by Puget Power to replace the traditional spawning grounds flooded by the Upper Baker Dam.

Their offspring found their way to the sea through barge-mounted devices at each dam called "gulpers," designed to funnel juvenile salmon into pipelines that bypassed the turbines.

From 1926, when good record-keeping began, through 1970, an average of 3,000 sockeye returned to the Baker to spawn each summer. "Everybody thought, `The Baker's doing fine,' " says Cary Feldmann, Puget Power's fish and wildlife manager. "Everybody went to sleep."

Then came the nose dive of the 1980s. Fransen says it was Feldmann who first suggested in 1985 that biologists form a committee to resuscitate the run.

In power company's interest

Puget Power has bankrolled most of the effort, spending about $4 million so far.

Why? Company officials say environmental stewardship is important to Puget Power. What's more, the Baker River dams' federal license expires in 2006. Unresolved fish problems could complicate relicensing, Feldmann acknowledges.

And no company wants to manage around an endangered species. "If that (listing) happens, it's out of their control," says Gary Sprague, a state Fish and Wildlife Department representative on the committee. "It would cost them more in the long run if they ignore the fish."

The scientists moved quickly. Before the record-low adult return of 1985, all the fry produced at the "spawning beaches" had been released to Baker Lake, where they spent a year before heading out to sea.

Biologists took 30,000 of the 75,000 fry produced by the 99 surviving adults of 1985 and reared them in a controlled environment, net pens in Lake Shannon, for a year.

Ninety percent survived, and were released to migrate out to sea in 1987. Good thing: just 91 of the 45,000 released into Baker Lake made the trip downstream that year.

Two years later, 536 fish - all that remained of the 75,000 fry - returned to the Baker River to spawn. Without the net pens, Sprague says, the 1989 adult return probably would have been in the single digits.

Studies in 1986 revealed a problem scientists weren't aware of before, a problem that has since become the focus of most of their efforts:

The "gulpers" that were supposed to draw migrating juveniles into pipelines and around the dams weren't attracting many fish. They worked when they were installed; biologists still aren't certain what changed.

Some fish were staying in the reservoirs, not migrating at all. Others were ignoring the pump-induced turbulence of the gulpers, designed to mimic an outlet stream, and probing deeper, swimming into the dam intakes. Most probably died in the turbines.

The scientists decided to improve one bottleneck and bypass the other.

Puget Power strung nets across the lower end of Baker Lake, from shore to shore, from the bottom to the surface, to guide wayward young fish into the Upper Baker Dam gulper. "If the fish are looking for the way out, we want to put up flags and signal lights for them," Fransen says.

The fish that find the gulper no longer ride the pipeline to Lake Shannon, no longer must search for the second gulper at Lower Baker Dam. Puget Power now loads them into tank trucks at Upper Baker, hauls them around both dams, and releases them in the lower river.

Scientists say the fish don't appear to suffer from the 40-minute detour. Most important, more fish are getting downstream.

Not all the sockeye's problems have been solved. Scientific committee members are concerned about the crop of young fish that will migrate out to sea next year, presumably returning to spawn in 1997.

As fry, they were hit hard by disease at one of the "spawning beaches" earlier this year.

Fransen expects next year's adult return will be about 3,700 fish, a 75 percent drop from this year's run.

The explanation is simple arithmetic. While the fish that spawned in 1990 - the parents of this year's record crop of returning adults - numbered nearly 2,000, the spawning class of 1991, whose offspring will return next year, was just 480 fish.

But Fransen says the spawning class of 1996 could be another whopper.

The secret of this success? "You need a commitment from everyone involved to push in the same direction," Fransen says.

"When they say you can't get there from here, don't believe it unless you've tried it yourself."

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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