Several years ago, chum salmon were on the brink of extinction in the lower Columbia River and its tributaries, sparking the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to undertake the Big Creek Hatchery Chum Salmon Recovery Program.

The species “used to historically be abundant,” said Derek Wiley, the department’s chum reintroduction assistant project leader who, along with the department’s chum reintroduction coordinator Dr. Kris Homel, will present at the Nature Matters lecture series at the Fort George Lovell Showroom this Thursday, Jan. 9.

During the presentation, “The History of Chum Salmon in the Columbia River: Collapsed Populations on the Long Road to Recovery,” Homel will discuss the status of the recovery program, which is part of the Lower Columbia Chum Salmon reintroduction and recovery project, and factors that are challenging the state department’s reintroduction efforts, such as the Ceratomyxa Shasta parasite that occurs in the Lower Columbia.

Wiley will show a short film on Oregon chum, including underwater spawning and broodstock collection footage that he has collected recreationally and professionally.

A declining population

“Chum salmon is really important and significant not only to the history but the cultural landscape of this place,” Kayla Fermin, a biological science technician at Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, said.

In 1928, peak returns were estimated at over a million chum. Beginning in the 1940s, chum returns declined rapidly to fewer than several thousand adults. After years of over-fishing and habitat degradation, the species was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1999.

The recovery program, which started in 2010, intends to help recover self-sustaining chum salmon populations along the Oregon side of the Columbia River.

Currently, it is an integrated recovery program incorporating natural origin fish in the broodstock. In the short term, the department is working to establish a hatchery chum salmon population in Big Creek to provide a source of broodstock for the recovery program, according to a 2016 Hatchery and Genetic Management Plan from the state’s Fish and Wildlife department.

During the first few years of the program, good ocean conditions augmented the effectiveness of the department’s strategies and they saw a “quite a few [chum salmon] coming back,” Wiley said. In recent years, however, “our ocean hasn’t been very productive, and we haven’t seen very large returns,” he said.

That isn’t a factor that can be controlled on a local level, which shifts the focus to rebuilding habitat to support the salmon lifecycle. At the presentation, community members will hear more about the status of the resource and the issues currently being faced in the reintroduction efforts, Wiley said.

Science from a local perspective

Nature Matters is hosted by Lewis and Clark National Historical Park in partnership with the North Coast Watershed Association, the Lewis and Clark National Park Association and the Fort George Brewery + Public House. It takes place the second Thursday of each month from October through May. During the current season, presentations are centered on the theme of water.

“We are there to create an environment where people in the community can come and learn some information they may have not known already and create a space where they feel comfortable talking about it,” Fermin said.

The state department and the historical park periodically overlap in their work, such as restoring salmon habitat at the park and maintaining records of salmon using their restoration sites, she said, adding, “We all know how important salmon is for this place.”

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