HAGERMAN — Salmon have been part of the American Indian story since time immemorial.
Chinook, sockeye, chum, pink and Coho salmon and steelhead trout were all once thriving species used for trade, food and spiritual purposes. But then the dams came and the environment changed. Urbanization and deforestation swept through the West and the salmon began to disappear.
It’s a story the four tribes of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission told Thursday — a tale they want to end differently. The Nez Perce, Yakama, Warm Springs and Umatilla tribes formed the commission in 1977 to restore salmon populations to their original glory by promoting knowledge about conservation and providing opportunities to research fish genetics.
Thirty members of the commission today will wrap up a three-day meeting in Hagerman that included a Thursday tour of the Hagerman Genetics Laboratory. The lab is a joint effort of the commission, the University of Idaho and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, aimed at furthering genetics research as a means to spur salmon recovery.
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The lab was placed near Hagerman because of the area’s environment for fish study and production, as well as its water quality.
“It’s perfect water,” said Paul Lumley, the commission’s executive director.
The facility houses six laboratories that explore pathology, fish diet and production, and genetic research. Dedicated in 2006, the genetics lab is “cutting edge,” Lumley said.
“We’ve had great success over the past 10 years,” said Lumley. “Facilities like this answer the questions we have about what is biologically appropriate in using hatchery fish in natural environments.”
The tribes have a vision of using hatcheries to help protect naturally spawning fish before they return to the wild. Restoration benefits everyone, members said Thursday. Clean water and healthy ecosystems produce healthy and robust fish that in turn bring positive benefits for humans, they said.
According to Ronald Hardy, professor and director of the Hagerman Fish Culture Experiment Station, salmon are one of the richest sources for omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for maintaining cardiovascular health.
“Salmon today are available and should be an essential part of your diet,” Hardy said. “They are very low in organic pollutants and have almost undetectable levels of mercury.”
Some regional fish populations have seen a dramatic increase, thanks in part to work in Hagerman and on behalf of the commission. In 1994, the Snake River Coho salmon was declared extinct at Lower Granite Dam. In 2008 the count was up to 4,629, according to commission records.
Shawn Narum started working in 2002 with the fish station. He said the key agenda for the Hagerman lab is to support the tribes and ensure natural fish stocks are protected and maintained.
“If natural populations are doing well it affects everyone,” Narum said. “People who eat the fish, anglers who want to catch the fish, and people like us who desire to work with restoring them. It’s all connected.”
Amy Huddleston may be reached at email@example.com or 735-3204.