Only Two Salmon Return
by Associated Press
KETCHUM, Idaho -- The year is at an end and only two sockeye salmon made the 900-mile journey from the Pacific Ocean to Idaho's Sawtooth Valley.
Their meager return this fall continues a series of dismal years for the fish.
Only 23 returned through the entire decade of the 1990s. With assistance from hatchery programs, more than 200 arrived in 2000. But the prosperity was short-lived. In 2001, 23 sockeye came back. In 2002, only 15 returned.
The genetic diversity needed to successfully drive the hatchery program could be dwindling.
"We're going through a tremendous bottleneck," said Bill Horton, anadromous fisheries coordinator for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. "We don't know if we can recover."
The two fish are the last remnants of historic Salmon River sockeye runs that once numbered in the tens of thousands, gathering in such multitudes in Redfish Lake that their spawning color was said to give the illusion of red water.
The two fish are also the result of a hatchery program that has kept the species on life support for the last 12 years, since Salmon River sockeye were listed as endangered in 1991.
Dan Baker, manager of Fish and Game's Eagle Hatchery, said the program is not designed to stimulate large returns and recover the species.
"It is focused on protecting the genetic material we had when the program began," he said. "I think we have a broad enough genetic base right now."
According to Fish and Game records dating to the 1950s, returning sockeye populations have fluctuated from year to year. The overall trend, however, was downward through the 1990s, and has continued to bump along at rock bottom levels.
A 1998 Fish and Game report agrees with many salmon advocates that erecting eight dams between Idaho and the ocean is the primary reason for the decline of the salmon and steelhead runs. Those advocates contend breaching four lower Snake River dams in Washington state is the only viable way to revive them.
Despite the dismal numbers, however, Horton said he believes sockeye salmon can bounce back.
"These are extremely resilient critters, and if we give them a chance they'll come back," he said. "We can't continue to cut them off and cut them off. If we give them a chance, they'll do it."
As for next year's class of 2004, returns could be relatively respectable, Baker said.
In 2001, Fish and Game released 100,000 pre-smolts. In 2002, biologists released 38,000 one-year-olds. Both packs should return next August.
"It's hard to say," he said. "It looks like it should be up from what last year was."
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