Starting in September, a stroll across Cooper Bridge off Highway 903 will reveal lots of spawning sockeye salmon. These fish, which used to run up to the Cle Elum River every year in the tens of thousands have only recently returned to these waters. Prior to 2009, they had been missing from the river and its tributaries for almost 100 years.
When dams were installed in the early 1900’s on the Cle Elum River and elsewhere, it completely cut off salmons’ access to these important spawning grounds. As a result, salmon populations plummeted throughout the Columbia River Basin and its tributaries. The dams devastated tribes such as the Yakama Nations, who heavily relied on salmon as a way of life.
The ecosystem suffered. After spawning, salmon carcasses provide rich nutrients from the ocean to an otherwise nutrient poor system. Salmon eggs and offspring are important food sources for threatened species such as bull trout as well as other fish and wildlife such as mergansers, kingfishers, otters, etc.
Then in 2009, the Yakama Nation reintroduced sockeye from Wenatchee and Okanogan Lakes to the Cle Elum watershed. On their return from the ocean, salmon pass through a Yakama Nation sorting facility on the Columbia River at Priest Rapids Dam. Selected salmon were transported to Cle Elum Lake and released. Then in 2013, the first of these salmon offspring returned to the Cle Elum River.
What Are You Seeing?
When you look down from the bridge, you will notice that there are circular areas where the gravel looks “clean” – meaning that it doesn’t have the algae or silt sitting on the surrounding surfaces. This is because the female salmon use their fins to “kick” back gravel onto their redds, or nests, which are located directly behind these clean gravel areas. For this reason, gravel size determines where salmon spawn. If gravel is too big, then they cannot move it to cover their nest, and if it is too small (silt), then it will smother the eggs. Both males and female sockeye are red, but males are brighter than females.
Splashing and Thrashing
When you watch this phenomena keep your eyes peeled for some interesting salmon behavior. Female salmon select a location and lay their eggs then “kick” gravel back with their fins to cover and protect them. Females also guard their redds from competing females that might try to lay their eggs on top of their nest. Meanwhile, males are vying to fertilize the eggs.
If you look closely, you may also see smaller dark brown shadows following the salmon. These shadows belong to trout, who eat the nutritious roe, and are constantly being chased away by females defending their redds.
Not the End, but the Beginning
Salmon physically break down as they exhaust themselves reproducing and protecting their redds. Their fins turn white and their red color becomes duller. Eventually they die, their carcasses providing nutrients and food, and the cycle of salmon continues.
Want to See Salmon Spawning?
You can see sockeye spawning at the Cooper Bridge! Head north on Highway 903 out of Cle Elum, WA – the road will eventually turn into Salmon La Sac Road. Take a left at the NF-46 road toward Cooper Lake. There is parking on either side of the road, and if necessary, on the other side of the bridge. You can look on either side of the bridge to see the sockeye spawning!
Please be respectful of these fish as you watch and do not throw rocks or enter the water. They are already stressed as is and need to use all their energy safeguarding the next generation of salmon. Enjoy!