by Rocky Barker
The fish have survived 2 near extinctions and now are on track
for the largest run in years, but they aren't sustainable yet
STANLEY - For the first time in two generations, Redfish Lake could run red with spawning sockeye salmon.
Biologists predict up to 1,000 endangered sockeye could spawn this fall in the lake that got its name from the scarlet-sided ocean-going fish. The run comes from a captive breeding program that snatched the last sockeye out of the wild in the 1990s to help preserve a unique genetic stock that has survived dams, poison and neglect.
These fish have been driven to the point of extinction - twice. And this year, no one really knows why so many sockeye are coming back to Idaho. But one thing is for sure - one year of high returns is a long way from permanent recovery.
In some ways, it has been a perfect confluence of factors: A record number of hatchery-produced smolts left Idaho two years ago, and these are the adults returning now. Wetter weather and a court order diverted more water away from smolt-killing turbines at the dams, flushing more of the young fish toward the Pacific.
But the Snake River sockeye are just a part of the largest run on the Columbia River since 1955, in a year when nearly every other sockeye run on the Pacific is down, including many runs that scientists believe live in the same parts of the ocean as the fish swimming home to Idaho this month.
The fish swim 900 miles from the Pacific through eight dams and climb 6,500 feet back to the Sawtooth Valley. Idaho's sockeye are not only the longest travelers but also the southernmost population of sockeye in the world.
For years, it looked like the run wouldn't make it.
Only two years ago, some biologists suggested the sockeye were "functionally extinct."
"This incredible creature, not people or agencies, deserves the credit," said Pat Ford, executive director of the group Save our Wild Salmon. "The emergency- room program rendered an assist, but the fish had to make the real lift, despite every mortal hazard the natural and human systems load on them."
Last year, only four fish returned to the Sawtooth Valley, and in 1995, no fish returned. From 1991 to 1998, just 16 fish returned, becoming broodstock for a captive breeding program modeled on the efforts that saved California condors.
This year, at least, it worked.
As of Saturday, 173 sockeye had returned from the Pacific, and Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologists were hoping more than 450 would end up in traps at the Sawtooth Hatchery and on Redfish Lake Creek.
All the fish will be taken to the Eagle Fish Hatchery, where they will be kept until Sept. 2, when they will be released in Redfish Lake along with 450 sockeye raised in the Eagle and Manchester, Wash., hatcheries.
There, they will spawn along with about 100 residual sockeye that live their entire lives in the lake. Eggs and sperm will be collected from about 30 to 50 of the ocean-going fish to help maintain the captive broodstock.
ONCE 'TEEMING,' THEN POISONED, NOW SCARCE
Millions of sockeye once returned to Idaho.
In addition to Redfish Lake, Sawtooth Valley lakes like Alturas, Petit, Yellowbelly, Hellroaring and Stanley were all "teeming with sockeye," as Barton Evermann, an ichthyologist with the U.S. Fish Commission in the early 1890s, once reported.
In 1881, 2,600 pounds of sockeye destined for the dinner plates of miners in nearby camps were harvested from Alturas Lake alone. Payette Lake at McCall also had a healthy sockeye population before Black Canyon Dam was built in 1925.
And it looked like the fish would be severed from the Sawtooth Valley, too.
Sunbeam Dam, built east of Stanley on the Salmon River in 1910, cut off the sockeye and other salmon migrations to the valley's lakes. Sportsmen illegally blew up the dam in 1931, and Fish and Game finished the job in 1932. By 1955, 4,361 sockeye were counted at Redfish Lake.
But federal authorities kept adding dams to the sockeye's migration route. Beginning in 1962, four dams were built on the Snake River, and by 1975, eight dams stood between Redfish Lake and the Pacific.
And man wasn't done. Idaho officials once actively contributed to the decline of the state's native fish run.
In the late 1950s and the early 1960s, Fish and Game poisoned Stanley, Hellroaring, Yellowbelly and Petit lakes, leaving several lakes toxic for up to two years. They installed barriers to keep the salmon from mixing with the rainbow and cutthroat trout they were planting to please sport anglers.
The salmon population, which had been declining, sank to double and single digits after 1975. Fish and Game tried to revive the run from 1980 to 1983 by planting sockeye from British Columbia in Stanley and Alturas lakes. The attempt failed.
In 1990, the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes petitioned the federal government to list Snake River sockeye as an endangered species. The fish were protected in 1991.
MYSTERY OF SO MANY FISH
The captive breeding program is designed only to keep the sockeye from going extinct. Its supporters say salmon cannot recover until downstream passage issues - including the dams - are resolved.
The mystery of the large return this year is wrapped up in the overall debate about dams, salmon and the complex problems that face the fish in its entire range.
Oregon officials and the Fish Passage Center, a team of biologists that monitors salmon migrations, say court-ordered spills over the dams account for the high returns. The water, diverted from the hydroelectric turbines to the spillways, pushes smolts more safely toward the ocean.
The center also attributes the success to the fact that fewer sockeye in 2006 and 2007 were carried in barges past the dams. Barging has helped some kinds of salmon, but research shows sockeye don't tolerate the extra handling as well.
Federal officials, meanwhile, believe good ocean conditions are responsible.
The number of predators and the availability of food in the ocean are by far the biggest drivers in salmon production, said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service. But he said salmon biology is complex, and the huge Columbia sockeye run is only part of the story.
"Folks needs to keep in mind that this is a snapshot," he said. "If you try to infer what the rest of the movie is from one frame to the next, you can't do it."
Idaho Fish and Game sockeye biologist Mike Peterson isn't ready to take sides, but he knows sockeye travel down the rivers at twice the pace of chinook, suggesting that travel time between the lakes and the ocean is even more important for the sockeye.
Meanwhile, the sheer number of smolts sent downstream two years ago had to help.
Anderson surmises the large pulse of smolts overwhelmed predators in the Salmon River - mostly bull trout - and allowed more sockeye to survive the first 462 miles of the migration downstream two years ago.
Still, the survival rate this year - an estimated 450 or so returning adults from more than 180,000 smolts - is just one-tenth of the level needed for a sustainable population.
BOTTLENECKS, BOTH LEGAL AND GENETIC
The federal government, Northwest water users, outdoors groups, state governments and tribes have clashed for years over how to manage the dams between the Sawtooth Valley and the Pacific.
Judges have rejected five government plans on how to operate the dams since 1992, and U.S. District Judge James Redden is considering the latest proposal.
Oregon officials have challenged the plan, because they say it places the welfare of other migrating salmon above that of sockeye.
The plan calls for transporting more sockeye in barges and to stop from May 7 to May 20 all extra spills over the dams - the very thing some scientists say helped this year's returning fish.
And a bigger scientific question remains unanswered, too.
Two years ago, an independent science panel concluded that the sockeye had lost some of its fitness to survive its challenging life cycle.
The Snake River sockeye has suffered through two near extinctions, called "bottlenecks" by geneticists - one during the 21 years Sunbeam Dam blocked their passage, and the other in the period after 1975, when the last of the dams was completed.
But Fish and Game geneticists hope DNA comparisons they are conducting with current sockeye and those alive in the '60s will resolve whether the fish have lost genetic diversity. That so many survived the trip this year suggests they are still fit.
"I still think this is a viable population genetically," Peterson said.
That may be true, said Rick Williams, a Meridian resident and retired University of Idaho fisheries biologist who has been a part of several independent salmon science teams during the past two decades.
But he points out that when chinook runs peaked at record levels in 2001, little was done to improve their passage or to take advantage of the bounty of so much breeding stock.
He's worried that this sockeye run will meet the same inaction.
"If we don't change anything, it will surely erode back down like the chinook and steelhead numbers have," Williams said. "This is an opportunity we need to capitalize on."
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