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Native Americans, Visitors Celebrate Return of Salmon to US State of Washington

Each year, salmon head upriver to their spawning grounds in the Columbia River basin in the northwestern U.S. state of Washington. Mike O'Sullivan reports, the event has inspired a festival in which Native Americans and wildlife experts help visitors celebrate the salmon.

Beginning in March, the fish start the arduous journey 800 kilometers upriver from the Pacific Ocean.

These Spring Chinook salmon are heading for the Wanatchee River and Icicle Creek, in the shadow of the majestic Cascade Mountains.

Salmon once thrived here, but over the years dams, overfishing and habitat destruction have diminished their numbers.

So 60 years ago, the U.S. government established a hatchery to give them some human help. Workers collect more than 1.5 million salmon eggs and raise the fish in tanks for 16 months. The young salmon are then released and head for the ocean. Guided by their sense of smell, they will return in a few years to spawn.

"One unique characteristic of salmon is they will come back to the same natal stream or area where they were born and raised," said Al Jensen, manager of the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery. "So the salmon that return here are fish that were released from here."

Each year in September, a community festival celebrates the return of the salmon.

Pacific Northwestern Native American tribes join the celebration.

For them, salmon provide a source of nutrition and inspiration. Geraldine Jim is a 70-year-old member of the Warm Springs Indian tribe in neighboring Oregon. She says the salmon population is declining.

"It is very important. It's getting very scarce for our people," she said. "Yes, it was plentiful in the past. We could go out and almost pull them out of the river with our hands because they would come up the river thick."

Tourists and residents learn about the history of the salmon and what is being done to help them survive.

They also get to taste it cooked over an open fire.

Corky Broaddus, executive director of the Wanatchee River Salmon Festival, says the event offers visitors two things.

"The key word is "edu-tainment," so they're educated while they are entertained at the same time," he said. "And for us, it is all about learning about conserving natural resources. And so this is a way they can do it as a family. It is a free event, and it is just great fun."

Amid pine forests, streams, and rugged mountains, it all takes place in one of Washington State's most scenic settings.