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Commentaries and editorials

Lower Snake Dams and Sockeye Salmon

by Fred Mensik
Columbia Basin Bulletin, June 23, 2006

In your article, "Will Program Preserve Lonesome Larry's Thin Genetic Line?" (CBB, 6/16/06) Michael Garrity is quoted as saying, "Removing the four high cost, low value dams on the lower Snake will allow for a more cost-effective and biologically effective plan to recover Snake River salmon." Mr. Garrity's comments about removing lower Snake River Dams in an article about saving Snake River sockeye might lead a reader to believe lower Snake River Dams are the cause of the Snake River sockeye demise. A review of the historical facts might correct any misunderstanding inferred by Mr. Garrity's quote regarding lower Snake River dams and the low number of returning sockeye.

Before dams existed on any river in the Columbia Basin, sockeye were the most abundant fish species to return to the Snake River. The largest population of sockeye returned to the Payette Basin and a smaller, but substantial population returned to the Stanley Basin. The Payette Basin sockeye were decimated by a commercial fishery by 1884 and the final demise of the Payette Basin sockeye and chinook was ensured with the construction of the Black Canyon Dam in 1923.

Lakes in the Stanley Basin that once supported sockeye include Alturas, Yellowbelly, Stanley, Pettit and Redfish Lakes. A survey of Redfish Lake on October 8, 1942, indicated that there were only 200 spawning adults observed (Summary Report of Bureau of Fisheries Stream Habitat Survey: Clearwater, Salmon, Weiser and Payette River Basin, 1933-1942). According to the surveyors, the reduced numbers of spawning adult sockeye was attributed to the Sunbeam Dam, constructed in 1913 on the Salmon River below Stanley Basin.

In 1954, the sockeye in Stanley Lake were poisoned by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. The lake remained poisonous for two years before it could be stocked with rainbow trout. "A migration-block dam was constructed at the outlet of Stanley Lake to prevent fish from moving upstream into the lake after it was stocked with game fish" (IDFG 1956 biennial report). This migration block prevented sockeye, returning from the ocean, from entering and spawning in Stanley Lake. Pettit Lake was treated with toxaphene in September of 1960 with a migration barrier completed on October 13, 1961 (State of Idaho Project No. F 46-D-1 completion report). Yellowbelly Lake was treated with toxaphene in September of 1961 (IDFG Annual Report, 1963).

In 1954, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game started operating a fish-counting weir on Redfish Lake Creek between Redfish and Little Redfish Lakes. The number of sockeye counted heading upstream in 1958, 1959 and 1960 was 55, 290 and 75 respectively.

These historical and well documented events all occurred prior to the completion of Ice Harbor Dam in 1961, the first of the four lower Snake River dams. I have tried to outline a brief description of the sockeye destruction in the Idaho, while Mr. Garrity's quote, in a sockeye related article, refers to all salmon.

Many of the salmon that migrate over the fish ladder at Lower Granite Dam migrate to the face of Idaho dams. But there are no fish ladders in Idaho. In order to have self sustaining fish populations, they must have access to quality spawning grounds, many of which are blocked by Idaho dams. Removing lower Snake River dams does not address this problem.

Associating poor sockeye returns with the construction of the four lower Snake River dams simply ignores the historical evidence. Mr. Garrity's assumption, that removing lower Snake River dams as a biologically effective plan to recover Snake River salmon, is an assumption with far too little insight to act upon.

Fred Mensik Pomeroy, Wash.
Lower Snake Dams and Sockeye Salmon
Columbia Basin Bulletin, June 23, 2006

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