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Chinook Salmon, Boaters Find Harmony

by Robinson Shaw, Environmental News Network - August 31, 1999

River rafting enthusiasts and endangered Chinook salmon are existing in harmony on the upper Salmon River of Idaho.

This stretch of the river is not only popular with one-day rafting parties but is also a spawning ground for endangered Chinook salmon. So when the Chinook, which have been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act since 1992, start to come home, folks on the river have to make room for them and they do.

Male and female Chinook salmon that are born in the Salmon River travel to the Pacific Ocean where they spend one to three years. They return from the sea in the late summer to spawn where they were born.

To ensure the salmon have the best spawning conditions possible while in their home river, managers of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area have implemented rules and regulations for all boaters.

The SNRA sits inside the larger Sawtooth National Forest where the headwaters of the Salmon River and the upper stretch are located. On their famous journey in 1805, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark dubbed the middle stretch of Salmon River "the River of No Return" because parts were too difficult to navigate. The middle salmon is located in Idaho's Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area.

"It's a pretty unique situation. We have a spawning habitat mixed with public use. On the Middle Fork of the Salmon River and the main Salmon, the fish spawn in tributaries, not in the main river," said Lisa Stoeffler, recreation program manager for the SNRA.

"I think it's good. They're protecting what little is left," said Andy Chapman, a river guide for Two-M River Outfitters of Sun Valley, Idaho.

Thousands of salmon used to make the 900-mile journey from the Pacific Ocean to the upper Salmon River. Today, only a few complete the arduous trip. While the Salmon River is the longest free-flowing river in the lower 48 states, the Chinook must travel through 200 dams along the Columbia and Snake River ecosystem before they even reach the upper stretch.

"Quite a few have made it back and more come every day. We don't really know the exact number," said Jena Daly, the upper Salmon River ranger for the SNRA.

Normally, the fish hold, or stage, in the river for a few days before they begin to build their redd, or egg nest. The female finds a clean spot in the sand and gravel of the riverbed to make her redd. Thousands of salmon eggs make up a redd, which measures about nine feet by five feet. She dusts off the dirt and algae from the rocks, creating a shiny area and spawning begins. Once the eggs are fertilized by the male, she covers up the redd and might hover over her creation for a few days before going off to die. The male might stray to find other eggs to fertilize, but he also dies soon after.

During the staging period, which begins Aug. 10 or when the first fish are sited, signs alert floaters to stay in their boats, run the deepest part of the channel and be quiet at two areas that are prime spawning habitat known as Indian Riffles and Torrey's Hole. Grounding boats, wading and going ashore are prohibited in these areas. And river goers have a time window they must obey for each area.

Once spawning begins, so does another set of rules. Beginning Aug. 21 each year, or when the fish are sited spawning, boaters must take themselves and their boats out of the river and portage around Indian Riffles. Two stretches of the river are closed to all boating, including a half mile stretch where Indian Riffles is located. If spawning is sited elsewhere, that area will also be protected.

"There have been restrictions of some kind or another for a few years. We've instituted the current management since 1996. It seems to be working very well," said Stoeffler.

"I talk to private boaters a lot. I stop to talk to them and explain what's going on. They haven't griped too much, not the outfitters or the public. It hasn't been too bad and actually they've been great about complying with the rules," said Daly.

"I can understand why they're protecting it. It's the perfect spot for spawning. It's a slow moving and low water area and it has the perfect gravel bottom," Chapman said of Indian Riffles.

Chapman is also a fly-fishing guide who has spent the last two summers on Alaska's Iliamna Lake. "I've seen pristine runs. They say you can walk on the backs of salmon in some areas and I've totally seen that," said Chapman. "Iliamna Lake has one of the world's largest sockeye runs. It's pretty incredible."

The upper Salmon River runs for about 25 miles and at the beginning of the summer when the water is highest, boaters paddle through class III and IV rapids, which require some skill. Four companies are permitted to take clients down the upper stretch of the river.

Chapman said the outfitter he works for has made the portages and closures part of the guests' day. They stop for lunch at a campground at the beginning of the first closure and the guests have to walk less than a half mile to get back in the water. "Everybody seems to know when they come up that there's something going on. I haven't heard any complaints because they have to get out and go around the area," he said.

The outfitters as well as private boaters are on a point system. Certain violations are worth certain points and so far the public has gained two for not complying with the floating windows. Once the public reaches nine points, the river is closed to them. If the four outfitters together reach 18, or meet their individual quota, they can't take guests down the river. Last year no points were given out.

Stoeffler said the closure and portage regulations will be reviewed next year along with the river companies' permits, which are renewed every five years.

by Robinson Shaw
Chinook Salmon, Boaters Find Harmony
, Environmental News Network - August 31, 1999

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