By Hannah Mink, American Rivers
July 10th was a historic celebration! With the sun high and temperatures too, hundreds gathered on the shores of Lake Cle Elum, dressed in everything from colorful native attire to business suits to chacos to rejoice in the release of sockeye salmon into the lake. Hosted by the Yakama Nation Fisheries and open to the public, the Salmon Celebration Ceremony honored and praised the successful return of Sockeye to the lake, as they make their way to the Cle Elum River. This wasn’t any ordinary salmon release. These salmon are the progeny of the first 1,000 fish initially used to restock the Cle Elum River in 2009. These fish were hatched here in the Yakima Basin, travelled to the ocean, and made the journey back up the Columbia and Yakima rivers to the Roza Dam, located about 40 miles downstream of the lake. They were then loaded into trucks, hauled up beyond Roza and Cle Elum dams, and released today where a crowd applauded and Elders of the Yakama Indian Nation sang prayers in honor of the long journey of these fish that until the recent reintroduction were locally extinct.
Following the sockeye release were speeches from Tribal Elders, a representative from the Bureau of Reclamation, the state legislature, and others, and more prayers and songs were dedicated. Everyone was then invited to gather around tables and share a feast of fry bread and smoked salmon and elk caught and hunted nearby. Today was a moving celebration of the progress made thus far by the Yakima Nation in bringing back the sockeye. It was also significant in its celebration and recognition of the collaboration which went into and continues to go into efforts to protect and restore habitat in the Yakima River basin. Gathered on the shores and then feasting around tables were local and neighboring tribes, community members, local residents, ecologists, biologists, Public Utility Districts, farmers, environmental groups, and legislators who all came together to celebrate. Many speeches mentioned the importance of blending new science and knowledge with the cultural and historical wisdom of those native to these lands. Today was remarkable and tangible evidence of the shared interest that exists in protecting and revitalizing the species and habitat of the region, as well as the collaboration needed in doing so. The Yakima Nation touched on the spiritual, emotional, and very humbling tones of their success of the returning sockeye to a place where they once spawned in the tens of thousands. Now that this progress has been made, we’ll be looking forward to when the fish will be able to make that same journey without the truck ride from Roza Dam and will travel freely through Cle Elum Lake, downstream to the Yakima River, and out to sea before their return to their home waters. A new fish passage system, as proposed in the Yakima River Basin Integrated Plan, will be the next momentous step for the restoration of Cle Elum sockeye. With the recent funding approval by Washington State Legislature for the Yakima Integrated Plan, this is an exciting time for the region as efforts for protecting this incredible Washington state habitat gain serious momentum!