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Ecology and salmon related articles

Here Come the Red Fish

by Jason Kauffman
Idaho Mountain Express, July 30, 2008

Officials: hundreds of rare sockeye salmon headed towards Sawtooth Valley

(Jeff Heindel/Idaho Fish & Game) Two of the 257 hatchery-origin sockeye salmon that returned to the Sawtooth Fish Hatchery near Stanley in 2000. The famous "red fish" of the Sawtooth Valley have begun to arrive in the upper Salmon River as part of a run fisheries experts are saying could be one of the best in decades.

As many as 700 rare sockeye salmon could be headed for the Redfish Lake area this summer, fisheries biologists with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game report. This figure compares to just 257 sockeye that returned to central Idaho in 2000, the next highest run since sockeye returns began to be tracked in 1985.

Such a run this summer would be a remarkable improvement above single-digit or non-existent sockeye returns to the scenic Idaho lake during the past several decades. In all, just 352 wild and hatchery-origin sockeye have migrated back to the Redfish Lake area since 1985, Fish and Game information indicates.

Between 1991 and 1998 only 16 wild sockeye returned to Idaho. All of these adults were incorporated into the state's captive-breeding program and spawned at the Eagle Fish Hatchery.

From the eggs produced by those original wild fish spawned in Eagle, a total of 355 hatchery-produced sockeye returned to the Sawtooth Valley during an eight-year period between 1999 and 2007. By comparison, just 77 natural-origin sockeye salmon returned to Idaho in the 14-year period between 1985 and 1998.

Redfish Lake sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) were listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) in November 1991.

They were the first Idaho salmon to be listed on the ESA. Redfish Lake sockeye are unique in that they travel to the highest elevation, over 6,500-feet, run the longest distance, about 900 miles, and travel the furthest south of any North American sockeye population.

On Tuesday, just days into the year's Sawtooth Valley sockeye run, a total of eight adult fish had returned to the valley, reported Jeff Heindel, Conservation Hatcheries Supervisor at the Eagle Fish Hatchery. The first sockeye of the year arrived in the Sawtooth Valley last Friday.

Heindel believes these returning sockeye are only the beginning.

"From here on we're going to see a peak," he predicted. "It will really skyrocket."

Still, a lot must happen before fisheries biologists can safely call this summer's Sawtooth Valley sockeye run a sign that things are improving for Idaho's beleaguered sockeye population. Hundreds of miles downriver on Tuesday, a total of 818 adult sockeye had passed by the Lower Granite Dam, the last barrier on the lower Snake River in southeast Washington that anadromous fish must pass before entering Idaho, Heindel said.

The major question mark remaining is just how many of the fish counted at the dam will actually return to the upper Salmon River and Sawtooth Valley near Stanley. Return rates on Snake River sockeye in recent years have varied quite significantly, with many of the fish accidentally veering off into other river drainages like north-central Idaho's Lochsa River and northeast Oregon's Imnaha River, Fish and Game mainstem migration specialist Russ Kiefer said last Friday.

During the 2000 sockeye run, when a total of 257 returned to the Sawtooth Valley, 299 sockeye were originally counted at the Lower Granite Dam 462 miles downstream.

A good guess would estimate that between 400 and 700 sockeye will make it home to the Sawtooth Valley out of those that have passed lower Granite, Heindel said.

He said it's safe to say that "hundreds of fish" will make it back. It's something everyone can be happy to see, he said.

"We haven't had 500 fish in the system since the 1970s," he said. "It's a feel-good story."

Fisheries biologists believe river conditions have a lot to do with the return rate of Idaho sockeye, Kiefer said. Colder, high flows generally favor higher returns to the Redfish Lake area, so this summer might see higher returns because of the cool, wet spring the region enjoyed, Kiefer said.

Kiefer said up to 50 to 90 percent of the sockeye "should be able to make it" this summer.

The high returns should aid the state's captive sockeye brood stock program and also allow fisheries biologists to release more adult sockeye into Redfish, Pettit and Alturas lakes, in the shadow of the Sawtooth Mountains, to spawn naturally, Kiefer said.

So, why the apparent excellent returns this summer? Kiefer said it's likely due to good smolt production four years ago, good out-migration conditions in the rivers and excellent ocean conditions.

Fish and Game will release approximately 450 hatchery-produced adult sockeye salmon that have lived their entire lives in captivity into Redfish Lake later this year. These fish were produced at the Eagle Fish Hatchery and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) facilities in Washington. Depending on the total number of returning anadromous adults, a portion of anadromous fish may be released to Redfish Lake for natural spawning.

Fish released in Redfish Lake will spawn in the shallows of the lake shoreline in October. Their progeny will out-migrate to the ocean in May of 2010. The majority of adults produced from this year's release will return to Idaho from the ocean in 2012.

This year's returns are the result of 180,000 smolts that were released and migrated to the ocean in 2006, Heindel said. In future years, fisheries biologists involved in the Redfish Lake captive brood stock program would like to expand their hatchery facilities so they could produce as many as million or more smolts, which could lead to even greater returns, he said.

Jason Kauffman
Here Come the Red Fish
Idaho Mountain Express, July 30, 2008

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