Focus on the Nisqually River; Welcome visitors

James May
3/30/05

TACOMA, Wash. - A recent agreement between the Nisqually Tribe and
Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge will help protect the estuary of the
Nisqually River, where something unusually encouraging happened recently.

In late January, Nisqually tribal volunteer salmon watchers noticed
something peculiar. After a decade-long absence, a run of coho salmon
appeared in the river much later than normal. Though unexpected guests are
not usually welcome in environmental matters, the tribe is treating these
untimely visitors with cautious optimism.

"Nisqually River late-run coho salmon are a unique, wild run of fish that
probably has always been coming back to the river," said Nisqually Tribal
Salmon Recovery Manager Jeanette Dorner. "We just weren't sure they were
still there."

Dorner said the late-run salmon might be part of a historical run, albeit
one that had fallen to such low numbers in recent years that they may not
have been noticed by observers, and that the current run might signal a
large-scale run of the elusive fish.

Usually the run of coho entering the Nisqually watershed occurs in October,
though a tribal press release said those fish are usually the product of
"hatcheries and other supplementation." The late run, however, is a
distinct wild run of coho.

It is also unusual for the tribe to have observers out so late. However,
over the preceding months very few salmon had been seen and the tribe asked
the observers to keep watching for an additional few weeks.

The late coho run does not seem to be limited to the Nisqually River; it
appears to be quite widespread, as the fish have appeared in other
waterways in the region.

"It's all over, this is happening Puget Sound-wide," said Georgianna Kautz,
natural resources manager for the tribe.

Kautz credits the increased numbers to good ocean survival rates and
feeding. She said that typically, king salmon run in July and the cohos
appear in the fall. Another species of salmon, known as chum, run after the
coho from December to early January.

Bill Patton, South Sound biologist for the Northwest Indian Fisheries
Commission, said he is not sure whether there is an exact count on the run
because their number may be lumped with the earlier run of coho.

The volunteers who spotted the salmon are part of a tribal program that
trains observers. They are taken to the tribe's two fish hatcheries and
taught how to identify salmon. Observers watch their respective waterways
in 15-minute increments and report the information back to the tribe.

"We take the information collected by the watchers seriously," said Dorner,
adding that every stream in the watershed is assigned a salmon watcher.

The move has the tribe hopeful that this may signal a resurgence of the
late-run coho. Plans are already underway to obtain genetic information
from the fish when they return next winter. Dorner maintains that the tribe
was caught unaware by this year's run but said they will expand their
efforts to track and study the late-run coho next year.

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