Only Two or Three Sockeyeby Barry Espenson
The adult return of endangered Snake River sockeye salmon to Idaho remains a trickle, defying the upward trend witnessed for most other Columbia River Basin salmon and steelhead stock in recent years.
But the return this summer of only two, and possibly three, spawners to Central Idaho's Stanley Basin does not signal that the imperiled stock will soon go extinct. The captive broodstock program that sustains it remains fully stocked.
Sockeye were the first Idaho salmon to be listed under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1991. Since that time only 16 wild sockeye have returned to Idaho, and none since 1998 when one fish returned. There were zero returns in 1995 and 1997 and one adult return in 1996.
Both fish captured this year at the Redfish Lake Creek trap were brought into the hatchery to be spawned with captive broodstock males. A third sockeye was spotted in the river below Sawtooth Hatchery but it did not enter the facility.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game began its sockeye captive broodstock effort in 1991. Several hundred Redfish Lake wild juvenile out-migrants, and several residual sockeye salmon adults were initially captured and used to develop captive broodstocks at the IDFG's Eagle Fish Hatchery near Boise and at NOAA Fisheries' Manchester facility in Washington's Puget Sound area.
The ultimate program goal is to re-establish restore Snake River sockeye populations. The immediate goal is to maintain population genetic integrity so that when habitat and other conditions allow it the mountain lakes can blossom with native stock.
"We're holding the genes until we get other things fixed," said Tom Flagg, NOAA's salmon program manager at Manchester. He said it has been clear for a long time that captive brood is necessary to keep the population afloat.
Over the years researchers have experimented with a variety of strategies getting sockeye back in Stanley Basin waters. Those strategies have included releasing fish at the pre-smolt stage in Redfish, Alturas and Pettit Lakes and at ready-to-migrate smolt size in the Salmon River below the Sawtooth Hatchery and in Redfish Lake Creek. Eggs fertilized in the hatchery have been outplanted in the lakes, as have captive-reared adults in Redfish.
About 330 adult sockeye salmon were released Sept. 16-17 at Redfish Lake. The sockeye were reared at Eagle and Manchester. They are expected to spawn in this month. Their offspring will head to the ocean in May of 2005 and return in 2007. Idaho's sockeye run the longest distance, roughly 900 miles, and travel to the highest elevation of any in the world.
The first release of hatchery sockeye was in 1994. The first return from hatchery fish was from the release in 1996 -- seven adults in 1999. To date, 314 hatchery-produced adults have returned from the Pacific Ocean to the Sawtooth Valley.
That includes 257 in 2000, 26 in 201 and 22 last year. The majority of 2000's return was released to spawn in Redfish lake.
A total of 12 sockeye were counted this year at Lower Granite Dam, the last hydro project the fish pass on their way Columbia, Snake and Salmon rivers. But apparently 10 perished on the final leg of the journey. The 2003 return was disappointing, but not critical.
The hatchery spawning strategies have assured that all of the lineages, the genetics, captured at the outset have survived and are being used to produce broodstock and eggs, juveniles and adults to return to natal waters.
"Those are probably more important metrics of success for this program," Flagg said, as opposed at this point to measuring returns. The returns depend on a variety of factors, including the release strategy used.
Smolts have seemed to produce the best returns. But they take longer to rear, and require more space.
"We haven't been able to release as many smolts" in recent years," said Dan Baker, Eagle Hatchery assistant manager. The program has loaned rearing space at Sawtooth at times in the past, but with strong returns of chinook the hatchery needs its total capacity for that primary product. And last year a disease outbreak at the Bonneville Hatchery near Cascade Locks, Ore., cost the Snake River sockeye program 68,000 smolts -- about half the number that were expected to migrate from the Stanley Basin.
Baker said he expect that about 200 females will be spawned at the hatchery, producing about 300,000 eggs to perpetuate the program.
The effort to maintain a hatchery-reared run of sockeye to Idaho is a partnership involving Idaho and federal fisheries agencies, the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and the University of Idaho, and is funded by the Bonneville Power Administration.
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