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Idaho Sees Big Sockeye Salmon Return

by Roger Phillips
Idaho Statesman, July 21, 2009

No one can explain the recent success, but it's certainly a good sign for endangered fish.

Idaho's Governor Cecil Andrus releases adult Sockeye into Redfish Lake, Idaho in 1994.  This was the first such adult release and which was forced upon the federal government by the Shoshone-Bannock How many sockeye are coming?

Through Sunday, 1,108 had crossed Lower Granite Dam, which is downstream from Lewiston and the last dam the fish cross before reaching Idaho.

Last year, 907 fish crossed the dam - double the combined returns of the previous 23 years. About 650 made it to the Stanley Basin.

Is that the most ever?

No, in 1955, 4,361 sockeye returned to Stanley. No one knows how many fish returned before the 1900s, because fish runs couldn't be counted.

This year's run is the largest since the eight Columbia and Snake River dams were built, and fish counts started in 1975 at Lower Granite Dam. In 1976,531 sockeye crossed the dam - the largest count there until 2008.

Why is this year's run so significant?

Because these are the first back-to-back years of large sockeye returns in decades for Idaho's most-endangered fish.

To put this year's run in perspective, from 1985 through 1998, a total of 77 sockeye salmon returned to Idaho.

Between 1999 and 2007, 355 sockeye returned to the Sawtooth Valley. As late as 2007, just four fish returned.

Idaho sockeye were listed as endangered in 1991 and immortalized the following year when a single male sockeye dubbed "Lonesome Larry" returned to Redfish Lake - which is named for the distinctive color of the fish when spawning.

Sockeye have essentially been on life support since then.

Why the big returns?

No one is sure why, but many factors have played roles. Foremost is probably that Idaho is producing more young sockeye in its hatchery program to send to the ocean, where they spend two to three years before migrating home.

The fish also have had better river-migration conditions and met a fertile ocean when they arrived in the Pacific.

When will all the fish return this year?

Last year, the run peaked at Lower Granite in early- to mid-July, and the last fish crossed on Oct. 10.

After a sockeye crosses Lower Granite, it typically takes about a month before it reaches the Sawtooth Valley.

From the ocean, sockeye migrate about 900 miles and swim from sea level to an elevation of 6,500 feet.

Not all the fish that cross Lower Granite make it to Idaho. But last year, about 80 percent of them did.

Does this big return mean Idaho's sockeye can come off the endangered species list?

Not so fast. More than 2,000 adult fish would have to return to Stanley for several years in order for the fish to be considered for delisting.

Related Pages:
Count the Fish data from Fish Passage Center and Idaho Fish & Game

Roger Phillips
Idaho Sees Big Sockeye Salmon Return
Idaho Statesman, July 21, 2009

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