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Salmon Return Highest in Years

By Greg Stahl, Mountain Express - August 9, 2000

Salmon River floating restrictions begin tomorrow to aid Chinook

By Sunday, 125 sockeye salmon had returned to their ancestral breeding grounds in the Sawtooth Valley, but Idaho Department of Fish and Game fisheries biologist Dave Cannamela warned that long-term downward population trends will problably continue as long as four Snake River dams are still in place.

This year's sockeye return is the best in 10 years. Last year, a mere seven sockeye returned to the Sawtooth valley. In the decade of the 1990s, only 23 returned.

"We see this year what we've seen in the past when we get good ocean and climatic conditions," Cannamela said in a Monday afternoon interview. "Yea, we're glad to see more fish, but the downside of that is that we're not seeing a substantial gain in the wild fish numbers."

Cannamela said that, of the 125 returning sockeye, seven are "most likely from natural production." The remaining 118 were hatchery-raised fish."

"To treat this with a lot of optimism is not the way it should be portrayed," he said. "We need lots of years of improved conditions, and we cannot expect Mother Nature to improve conditions with these dams in place."

"The real problem is still there. The artery still has the clogs in it. The patient is still in the emergency room. When things go bad again, as we know they will, we'll be back to really bad and even worst shape."

In 1991, Idaho began a captive breeding program after the sockeye were placed on the federal endangered species list.

In the 10-year history of the program, a 100-fish return seems enormous compared to the years when one or no sockeye sucessfully completed the 900-mile journey from the Pacific Ocean, according to a Fish and Game press release.

In 1998, an estimated 143,000 sockeye salmon smolts (newborn salmon) left the Sawtooth Valley en route to the ocean. The fish returning this year are from that release, the press release stated.

According to Fish and Game biologist Paul Kline, most of the returning in Redfish, Alturas and Pettit lakes in the Sawtooth Valley. Between 10 and 20 of the fish may be kept and incorporated into the spawning program at the Eagle Hatchery near Boise.

Sockeye aren't the only fish doing well this summer. The summer Chinook salmon run is also looking better than in the past, Cannamela said.

Chinook salmon returns are up over previous years, he said.

This summer, 6,688 Chinook crossed Lower Granite Dam, the last of eight dams the fish must circumvent before making their way to their breeding grounds on the upper Salmon River. Last year, by comparison, 4,181 crossed the dam.

But despite the improved return, Salmon River floating restrictions will be implemented tomorrow to help spawning Chinook successfully reproduce.

Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA) officials want Chinook salmon that make the perilous 900-mile return trip to their spawning grounds to have every possible chance at sustaining the species' survival. That means the fish must be able to spawn unimpeded by rafts, kayaks or wading fishermen and tourists.

Threatened Chinook salmon that have negotiated the four lower Snake River dams and four Columbia River dams will probably begin building nests -- called redds -- this week or next week, said SNRA backcounrty ranger Ed Cannady.

In anticipation of the salmon's return to their ancestral spawning areas, the SNRA will implement several measures designed to give fish optimum reproductive conditions.

Times for closing the river to rafters and kayakers will and have been used to allow fish to choose the best sites forr nest building and completion of their spawning.

Some stretches of the river; primarily Indian Riffles and Torrey's Hole, have ideal conditons for Chinook spawning and are home to several redds.

Before spawning, the fish become stationary in the river for several days, a process called "staging." Restrictions on river use will begin then or on Aug. 10, whichever is earlier.

Once staging has commenced, signs will be posted at Indian Riffles and Torrey's Hole directing floaters to stay in their boats, navigate the deepest part of the channel and minimize disturbance of staging fish.

Grounding boats, wading and going to shore will be prohibited at Indian Riffles and Torrey's Hole.

Floating time windows are used to ensure that fish have the majority of the day to seek ideal spawning grovels without the disturbance caused by rafts floating over or near them.

Floating is only allowed through Indian Riffles between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and through Torrey's Hole only from noon to 6 p.m. If these time windows can't be observed, boaters must portage around the two spawning areas.

Once fish actually begin building redds, the spawning period begins and a new set of rules apply.

"These fish need to be able to build their redds with limited human disturbance," said Deb Bupus, SNRA threatened and endangered species biologist.

"They have not eaten since they left the Pacific and are operating on limited reserves. We have to give them the best chance possible to spawn successfully," she said.

Therefore, on Aug. 21, or when the fish begin spawning, whichever comes first, floaters are required to walk around Indian Riffles, from Mormon Bend campground to the Yankee Fork and from the River Company launch site to Torrey's Hole.

Greg Stahl
Salmon Return Highest in Years
Idaho Mountain Express - August 9, 2000

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