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Purchase Boosts Sockeye Recovery

by Staff
BPA Journal, August 2010

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game purchased a former southeast Idaho fish hatchery site with the goal of constructing a new hatchery to further boost rebounding numbers of endangered Snake River sockeye salmon.

BPA funded the $4.75-million purchase, which comes just as the most adult Snake River sockeye in at least 40 years appear headed back to the mountain streams of Central Idaho. That's a promising sign for a species that some had considered all but extinct. While sockeye still have a long way to go toward recovery, the proposed new hatchery should help get them there.

The purchase of the 73-acre parcel formerly known as the Crystal Springs Trout Farm near Springfield, Idaho, closed in July. Idaho Fish and Game will next develop a proposal to convert the now-shuttered existing facility into a state-of-the-art sockeye hatchery that can support production of up to 1 million young fish for release into the Snake River.

bluefish has contacted both NOAA Fisheries and the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) seeking data, documents, links or statements to support the above statement, "While sockeye still have a long way to go toward recovery, the proposed new hatchery should help get them there." Supporting evidence was not provided (bluefish was directed to speak with Idaho Fish & Game officials, see update below) and BPA officials refuse to retract this statement.

In private discussion, a BPA official did agree with the obvious fact, that a 1:1 adult-to-adult ratio (aka. recruit-spawner ratio) is necessary for Idaho's Sockeye to be considered for delisting. Over the past years, this ratio has typically ranged around 1:5, meaning that a single adult returns to spawn for every five adults spawning in its parents generation -- obviously not a self-sustaining population. Although not an official statement, this is an important admission, as BPA and NOAA Fisheries officials (stretching back to bluefish's meeting with NMFS' acting administrator Donna Darm) have steadfastly avoided setting this ratio as a standard metric for Idaho's Sockeye recovery.

Crystal Springs hatchery, if approved by the Hatchery Reform Group will increase production five-fold to 1 million Sockeye smolts per year. A "safety in numbers" hypothesis has been suggested (See page 22, Snake River Sockeye Update), that adult-to-adult ratios can be increased substantially by increasing the quantity of out-migrating fish. This "swamping" tactic will lessen the percentage impact of predators on a larger school of migrating fish.

A further benefit of the Crystal Springs hatchery is that as more hatchery Sockeye are produced, more will be implanted with tags and transmitters so that more data can be collected.

John Ferguson of NW Fisheries Science Center tells bluefish that as more juveniles are tagged, research will begin to focus on mortality in the free-flowing river above the FCRPS reservoirs. The working hypothesis here is that adult Sockeye migration may be encountering substantial losses above the hydrosystem, possibly due to high water temperatures related to irrigation withdrawals. NOAA indicated in a 2009 report that one contributor to strong returns in 2008 was favorable conditions in the upper river above the dams, allowing more adults to survive the trip.

Noticeably, the $1000 reward, seeking an explanation of how Idaho's Sockeye will achieve recovery, has remained unclaimed although most all of the region's fish scientist have been made aware of the reward. To repeat, no one has been able to state how the federal Action Agencies plan will bring about the recovery of Idaho's Sockeye. The conjecture (highlighted above in bold by bluefish) published in the August BPA Journal remains unsubstantiated.

See also NW Fishletter Salmon Crossroads Conference: Splitting, Lumping, Denial, the Trough, Good Show reporting that "Rob Walton of NOAA Fisheries Salmon Recovery calls for a definition of recovery--a noble idea that needs to be tried for all of its difficulty."

Late September 2010 update:

Over two decades ago, a conjecture was put forward that Idaho's Sockeye were experiencing a downward "extinction vortex".

From the film RedFish BlueFish
Paul: Well once you beat a population down to a very low number they don't have that bounce back capability. There simply aren't enough of them to waste. You can't have a high rate of attrition and still have reproduction and replacement. At some point you're going to be losing and headed toward extinction.
The proposed Clear Springs Hatchery, currently in Phase One of Hatchery Review, if approved and constructed, will increase outmigrating smolt populations five-fold to near one million juvenile Sockeye salmon.

An immediate benefit will be more PIT tagged fish for greater research and monitoring. In the past, far too few Sockeye migrated from Idaho for statistically significant interpretation of their lifecycle. For instance, in testing downstream migration past Removable Spillway Weirs, some immediate short-distance survival estimates were made, but it was not possible to obtain reliable information regarding these same fish returning as adults. Increased hatchery production will provide for more confidence in data gathered over the full lifecycle of Idaho's Sockeye salmon.

John Ferguson of NW Fisheries Science Center tells bluefish that detection arrays will soon be placed in the free-running stretch of the Salmon River above the hydrosystem corridor all the way up to the Sawtooth Basin. The 2008 Biological Opinion calls out for this research as there has been a high variablilty of adult survival on this free-flowing stretch of river.

Research of juvenile outmigration survival will be greatly improved by this same antenna array. It may be that a particular section of river shows a high mortality rate, significantly higher than an average per mile rate of mortality. This region would then be studied as to what might be causing this mortality. Currently, it is considered possible that irrigation withdrawals decrease cool water inflows which may affect adult migrant survival. In summary, more tagged fish and more antenna arrays will improve on the knowledge base, but that data is at least a decade away.

In October of last year, Idaho Fish & Game introduced the NW Power Planning Council to a hypothesis referred to as Safety-in-Numbers hypothesis (link to presentation). In support of this hypothesis is some limited, early and preliminary data suggesting that more outmigrating smolts will experience a lessened percentage mortality as they migrate downstream past predators. Over the coming years, with greatly increased Sockeye hatchery production, more data will become available to further test this hypothesis. Current data is preliminary and some outliers are being reconsidered for accuracy (for instance 2009 outmigration data shows a relatively high number of Sockeye smolts that were not seen by PIT tag sensors until Bonneville Dam, which calls into question mortality estimates near the top of the hydrosystem).

Over the past few years, a large number of hatchery-produced smolts have been placed in the springtime (early May) outflow of Redfish Lake Creek. Juvenille survival has increased as measured at Lower Granite dam, the highest dam of the federal hydropower system, but adult returns have yet to show corresponding results. The question remains if a five-fold increase of outmigrants will further improve survival to Lower Granite and more importantly if that survival will result in a self-sustaining one-to-one adult-to-adult ratio.

The Safety-in-Numbers hypothesis is currently supported only with limited, supporting evidence and many/most salmon biologist remain skeptical. Indeed, the federal government decided to forgo a jeopardy analysis of Idaho's Sockeye in it's latest FCRPS Biological Opinion.

National Wildlife Federation, and Oregon:
"The 2010 BiOp also fails to remedy the failure of the 2008 BiOp to provide an actual jeopardy analysis for endangered Snake River sockeye."

Purchase Boosts Sockeye Recovery
BPA Journal, August 2010

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