Puget Sound Energy
Recreational, Environmental, and Historical Enhancement
Recovery of Baker River Sockeye Salmon
Throughout the 8½-decade history of the Baker River Hydroelectric Project, stakeholders have attempted many creative solutions to protect the river’s sockeye salmon population. A variety of preservation attempts, such as building a fish-collection barge in the late 1950s for juvenile-salmon migration, met with varying degrees of success. When the river’s sockeye population plummeted in the 1980s, PSE undertook a series of collaborative studies and urgent fish-recovery initiatives. Since then, the utility’s ongoing efforts are producing dramatic results. In 2010, adult sockeye salmon returned to the Baker River in record numbers – seven times the annual average run.
In 1978 the Baker River sockeye salmon population was predicted to be extinct within three generations (i.e., by 1990). PSE collaborated with resource agencies (National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife), Indian Tribes (Upper Skagit Indian Tribe, the Swinomish Tribal community, and the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe), the US Forest Service and National Park Service to develop a series of studies and innovative techniques, including improved fish-passage technology, population enhancements, disease-management protocols, and other progressive methods to promote recovery.
Evaluation of return data in the late 1970s found that Baker River sockeye and coho populations were experiencing decline with no clear explanation of why. PSE and its agency partners initiated a suite of studies for a variety of parameters related to productivity. These studies were continued for about 20 years.
The Baker River committee, an ad hoc group composed of PSE, federal and state fisheries agencies, tribal biologists, and the US Forest Service was formed in 1985 to postulate solutions.
The results from reanalysis of migration data from the 1960s focused attention on developing improvements to fish passage around PSE’s two Baker River hydroelectric dams. And over a decade, the group developed an understanding that the real key to success for downstream passage with a floating-surface collector was guide nets. Previously unused in an industrial setting for this purpose, small prototype net placements were incrementally expanded in length and depth, over a decade becoming an exclusionary reservoir barrier from shore to shore and bottom to surface, leading like a funnel to the collector barge. The nets essentially acted like soft screening for the entire flow of the upper Baker River while directing fish to the collector barge. The nets included special features to allow flood flows with associated debris to pass over while permitting rapid redeployment afterward. Later in the prototype’s design development, a specialized piece of equipment, the Net Transition Structure (NTS), created a gradual connection from the barrier created by the guide nets to the floating fish-collector barge. These combined efforts helped boost the counted number of juvenile sockeye migrants leaving the Baker River basin from 75 in 1987 to over 436,000 in 2010.
Other features to assist the salmon population were also adopted. A new and improved spawning beach was built to replace a smaller one constructed at the head end of Baker Lake, which had become vulnerable to a failing water supply and flooding exposure. In addition, PSE and its partners developed a better understanding of the transfer mechanism of a virulent disease, infectious hematopoietic necrosis (IHN), which resulted in a special disease-control protocol to permit only healthy fish to go into the spawning-beach system. Agency pathologists hypothesized and determined that sockeye fry were infected through vertical transmission from adults lingering in the beach after spawning, having not expired before the fry emerged. Consequently, a simple but effective general protocol was initiated to remove all adults well before any potential contamination with the progeny.
The recovery of the Baker River sockeye clearly is a success story. With an average of just under 3,000 adults returning to the river between 1926 and 1959 (when Upper Baker Dam was commissioned), the stocks suffered a severe decline in the 1980s, resulting in a historic low of 99 fish returning in 1985. The stock was facing extinction and was listed as a candidate under the Endangered Species Act. However, due to the ambitious and visionary work by a number of individuals from PSE, state and federal fish agencies and Skagit River Basin Indian tribes, the stock not only recovered enough for removal from the ESA-candidate list, but since 1993 has enjoyed eight of its 10 highest runs in history, including 2010’s record run of more than 22,500 fish. The teamwork initiated by the ad hoc committee was codified in the recently issued Baker River License to become the Baker River Coordinating Committee, a group that continues to collaboratively address resource issues to find a better way.
“Too often one encounters an apparent commitment to prevent extirpation of a resource, as in, ‘not on my watch.’ Less common, and far more satisfying has been the sustained effort shown by PSE to not only prevent the loss of the endemic Baker sockeye salmon, but through their cooperation and collaboration, PSE and the agencies and tribes have jointly recovered these fish to their former abundance. And this seems to be just a new beginning. It appears as though this population will continue to increase in abundance.”- Steve Fransen, National Marine Fisheries Service NOAA Fisheries