A thousand tiny fish made a little history this week.
The first batch of juvenile Chinook salmon from the Coquille Indian Tribe’s 2021 spawning project swam from a mesh-covered acclimation box on Wednesday to begin their life cycle.
“This is the first of many more generations of fish that will go into their native system from Coquille Tribal lands,” said Brenda Meade, the tribe’s chairman.
The tribe plunged into the salmon project last year, after learning that the fall Chinook run in the tribe’s namesake river was nearing extinction.
“Our river is in bad shape for a lot of reasons, and we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Meade said.
The fish that were freed this week came from eggs produced in a cooperative effort among the Tribe, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and a host of community partners and volunteers. Some of those volunteers were present Wednesday, along with tribal families and tribal staff. Joy and hope marked the event.
“It means a lot,” said Josh Bettesworth, a Salmon and Trout Enhancement Program volunteer, who helped feed the baby fish for the past few weeks. “It’s a beginning, and I think that at some point we’re going to look back on all this and say that’s where it all started.”
Bettesworth praised the tribe for its work on the river’s behalf.
“They were able to get results,” he said. “Where we all failed before is, we weren’t able to get everyone together. We weren’t able to get the port, and the city, and ODFW, and local fishing groups, and the STEP groups all together. They were able to bring that whole group together as an entirety.”
“I’m happy they’re leading the charge,” he said.
Meade thanked the tribe’s many community partners in return.
“There is no way we could have done it on our own,” she said.
The first 1,000 “pre-smolts” are the vanguard of thousands more that will be released this year by ODFW and the tribe. The little fish will head downstream to a seagoing adulthood. The hardiest among them will return to spawn in the Coquille River system.
“They’re on their journey, and I hope they have a safe trip and they come back to see us,” said Don Garrett, a member of the Coquille Tribal Council.
The salmon began their trip at Lampa Creek, about seven miles east of Bandon, on property that the tribe recently bought from Coos County.
“I’m happy for us to have that opportunity to own this property and start reintroducing salmon into this river, which is part of our culture,” Garrett said. “It’s been part of my family values throughout my whole life.”
Meade looks forward to a time when local residents can resume fishing for Coquille River salmon.
“We can’t be the generation that lets this go,” she said.