Biologists Try To Figure Out Large Fall Chinook Runs

By Courtney Flatt, Northwest Public Radio


A chinook salmon photographed in the Snake River in 2013. That year's run set records. Biologist aren't sure exactly why fall chinook runs have been so high in recent years. | credit: Aaron Kunz
A chinook salmon photographed in the Snake River in 2013. That year’s run set records. Biologist aren’t sure exactly why fall chinook runs have been so high in recent years. | credit: Aaron Kunz


Thousands of fall chinook salmon are swimming up the Columbia River every day right now. This year’s migration is expected to be one of the largest in recent years. Researchers aren’t sure exactly why fall chinook have made such a big comeback.

Salmon and steelhead restoration has been a big push throughout the Northwest — from Puget Sound to coastal streams to the Columbia-Snake River Basin — where fall chinook were nearly extinct by the 1960s.

Billy Connor is a fish biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service based near the Clearwater River in Idaho, where many of these fish end up.

“There’s been an incredible amount of effort spent trying to restore salmon and steelhead populations throughout the Northwest. And the Snake River Basin fall chinook population is a pretty unusual case because it’s rebounded so dramatically,” Connor said.

He’s been researching fall chinook for 27 years, his entire career. For years, fall chinook weren’t the salmon people wanted to study. They weren’t as economically important or as tasty as the spring salmon runs.

But fall chinook have made a big comeback recently. Last year, a record 1.3 million fall chinook made the migration. This year’s run won’t break that record, but biologists say the numbers are still high.

And no one really knows why.

“We can’t point to any one action and say that’s it. That’s what did it,” Connor said.

There are good ocean conditions, habitat restoration, changes in dam operations, reductions in salmon predators and harvests. The list goes on.

Rich Zabel is the director of the fish ecology division at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northwest Science Center. He understanding which factors help and which hurt fall chinook populations will help recovery efforts.

Zabel said one factor that’s overlooked is the fish’s adaptability. Historically, fall chinook spawned in sections of the river now blocked by the Hell’s Canyon Dam. Now, the salmon spawn on the Clearwater River and migrate at slightly different times of year.

“It’s taken the population a while to adapt. We’ve seen, over the last 20 years, some pretty major differences,” Zabel said.

Connor said teasing out the causes of these large numbers will be the study of his career.

He’s creating a computer model to narrow down the lengthy list of things that might be helping out the fall chinook runs. He says some pieces of the puzzle will affect salmon runs more than others.

To make the models, Connor and his team have been collecting data for 20 years. He says that’s why it’s taken so long to get to this point.

“These models are incredibly data hungry. There are thousands and thousands of bits of information that go into them,” Connor said.

Zabel said modeling like this, and other models that NOAA biologists are working on, shows how research and monitoring feed into management practices.

“As we’ve learned more and more about fall chinook through field research, we can understand through modeling and the collecting of data what the factors are that are harming the populations and can develop plans based on that information,” Zabel said.

Connor said biologists can apply what they learn with his model to help other salmon populations in the Northwest. He hopes to finish up this research by 2017.

Buzzworthy Breeding To Bring Back Bumble Bees

Preparing to inseminate a queen bee.Megan Asche
Preparing to inseminate a queen bee.
Megan Asche


By: Tom Banse, NW News Network


Some scientists are going to great lengths to help the agreeable Western bumble bee make a comeback.

You might not have noticed, but this important pollinator of both flowers and greenhouse crops has nearly disappeared from the landscape. An introduced fungal disease is suspected of decimating populations of the fat and furry Western bumble bee (Bombus occidentalis).

Researchers with the U.S. Agriculture Department have identified some surviving colonies that show disease tolerance. Now a federal bee lab in Utah is collaborating with experts at Washington State University to reestablish the native pollinator. USDA entomologist Jamie Strange is leading a captive breeding project to improve stock fitness. That even includes artificial insemination of the small insects.

“We have this instrumental insemination that we’re working on developing at this point,” explained Strange. “It is still in its infancy, but we hope that we can actually remove sperm from the males and then inject it into the females like they do with certain honey bee breeding programs.”

Strange says commercial pollination companies that truck bee colonies from farm to farm are eager for him to succeed.  “As honey bees become more limited and more expensive, they’re looking for alternatives. We’re here to help them,” said Strange. “Growers are interested in using bumble bees to supplement pollination in berry crops, orchards and other places.”

“When you have both honey bees and wild bees present, you have improved yields from both working together,” observes collaborating entomologist Steve Sheppard at WSU. “There are certain crops where bumble bees are much better” pollinators, he said during a telephone interview.

Sheppard noted that British Columbia’s large industry of hot house tomato growers relies on non-native bumble bees for pollination. He said honey bees typically fly to the ceiling if released in a glass house.

In any event, sooner or later either species tends to get out. “If Jamie can develop a regionally more appropriate species… there could be a lot of interest to use it in Western states,” said Sheppard. Non-native imports “could displace or harm native bumble bees. That’s the logic to not take a species that does not occur in West and put in glass houses.”

Some states, including Oregon, do not even allow the import of non-native bumble bees to minimize the risk of unleashing disease or unwanted competition with native species.

Bumble bees and honey bees can be fairly easily distinguished. Bumble bees are fat and furry. The smaller and slimmer honey bee more closely resembles a wasp. Honey bees live in large hives, while bumble bees tend to cluster in smaller nests which do not produce surplus honey.