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Is This Salmon Recovery?

by Jason Kauffman
Idaho Mountain Express, September 10, 2008

Officials hope thousands of Redfish Lake Sockeye will return someday

(Chris Pilaro) Wearing a black cowboy hat and coat to ward off the cold, Idaho Gov. C.L. Paying their respects to the fish that gave Redfish Lake its name, government officials, tribal representatives and the media have made summer migrations of their own in recent years to watch wriggling, red-and-green sockeye salmon dropped into sandy shallows to spawn and die in the shadow of the Sawtooth Mountains.

Like a host of Idaho governors have before him, Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter donned waders and lent a hand last month as dozens of the fish were released. With record numbers of sockeye returning this summer and all the hubbub surrounding Otter's highly publicized release, some might conclude the species is well on its way to recovery. But salmon advocates say such a conclusion would be a mistake.

Fresh from two years in the Pacific Ocean, hundreds of upriver-bound sockeye were captured in fish traps on the upper Salmon River and Redfish Lake Creek earlier this summer and transported to the Eagle Fish Hatchery near Boise.

The captured sockeye were split into two groups. Eggs harvested from some of the fish are destined for hatcheries, where the young sockeye will be raised to smolts. Leftover adult sockeye not needed to replenish the state's hatchery program were transported back to the Sawtooth Valley for release into Redfish and nearby lakes to spawn naturally. In a year and a half, the hatchery-born smolts will be released into the Salmon River, joining their natural-born cousins for a downstream journey to the ocean.

On life-support since the early 1990s, central Idaho's remaining population of sockeye has been a stone's throw away from extinction for more than a decade. From tens of thousands of the "red fish" that once swam hundreds of miles from the ocean to their scenic birthplace in the Sawtooth Valley, the population has dwindled to mostly dismal single-digit or non-existent annual returns. The declines in the remarkable fish are tied to over-fishing, mining activities, poisoning in the early days and, perhaps most significantly, a dam-building boom on the Columbia and lower Snake rivers between 1937 and 1975.

But something unexpected happened this summer. For reasons no one seems fully capable of explaining, hundreds of Redfish Lake sockeye pushed past hungry sea lions on the lower Columbia River, swam the gauntlet of massive hydroelectric dams that stretches from Portland to Lewiston and maneuvered around other impediments. In all, 555 sockeye came back to the Sawtooth Valley.

That's more than double the next highest return since 1985, when 257 sockeye arrived home in 2000. And its far more than the four that came back in 2007.

To top things off, the 2008 Idaho sockeye run is just a tiny fraction of a much larger run that's coursed through the Columbia River system this year. Numbering just shy of 214,000 fish, the vast majority are headed upriver to spawn in lakes in Washington.

Idaho fisheries biologists hope that, eventually, as many as 2,000 sockeye born from fish allowed to spawn naturally in Redfish Lake will migrate back to the Sawtooth Valley each summer.

By comparison, out of this year's overall run of 555 sockeye, just 132 were born from natural spawners, said Dan Baker, hatchery manager at the Eagle Fish Hatchery, headquarters for the state's captive breeding program for Redfish Lake sockeye. The rest were raised in hatcheries from eggs harvested from captive adult sockeye. A lot must happen before the state's ultimate recovery goal is achieved, and once reached, the high numbers of natural-born fish migrating home will need to span many years.

"That would be for multiple generations, obviously," he said.

The success of Idaho's sockeye recovery program has been a long time coming.

Redfish Lake sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) were listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1991. They were the first Idaho salmon to be listed under the law. Redfish Lake sockeye are unequaled in that they travel to the highest elevation (over 6,500 feet) swim the longest distance (about 900 miles) and travel the farthest south of any North American sockeye population.

"This is a unique population," Baker said. "It's sort of on the outer limit of its range."

When Sunbeam Dam was erected on the upper Salmon River near Stanley in 1910, sockeye populations in the Sawtooth Valley crashed. But when the dam was breached in 1934, the fish made a triumphant return. By 1955, seven years before the Ice Harbor Dam was erected on the lower Snake River-the first of four on that stretch-more than 4,300 sockeye returned to spawn in the Sawtooth Valley.

Historically, up to 30,000 sockeye spawned annually in Alturas, Pettit, Yellowbelly, Redfish and Stanley lakes.

By the time the final lower Snake River dam-Lower Granite-was completed in 1975, sockeye returns to the Sawtooth Valley had once again fallen to a fraction of historic levels. Between 1991 and 1998, a total of just 16 sockeye returned to Redfish Lake. All of these adults were incorporated into the state's captive-breeding program and spawned at the Eagle hatchery.

From the eggs produced by those original wild fish, 355 hatchery-bred sockeye returned to the Sawtooth Valley during a nine-year period between 1999 and 2007. By comparison, just 77 wild sockeye salmon returned to Idaho in the 14-year period between 1985 and 1998.

The state's plan for bringing more sockeye back envisions a significant increase in the production of smolts from its captive-breeding facility in Eagle, which was recently expanded. Idaho officials are searching for a new hatchery to receive eggs produced there. Eggs sent to that facility will be raised to smolts, which will be released near Redfish Lake a year and a half later during spring runoff.

Perhaps as soon as five years from now, the state hopes to be producing up to 1 million smolts for release each year, Baker said. That figure doesn't include smolts born from sockeye allowed to spawn naturally.

Based on preliminary estimates, about 160,000 smolts-both hatchery-bred and naturally spawned-left the Sawtooth Valley during spring 2007. That compares to an estimated 180,000 smolts that left in 2006 and were the basis of this year's surprising run. This means that next summer's sockeye run could be like this year's if ocean conditions and river flows-both important factors that help determine how many adults return two years later-remain positive, Baker said.

In April, federal officials announced a deal reached with the Warm Springs, Yakima and Umatilla tribes after two years of negotiations. The deal with the federal Bonneville Power Administration sets forth a series of actions designed to improve habitat and strengthen fish stocks in the massive Columbia River basin, which covers most of the Intermountain West and the vast majority of Idaho. The Nez Perce tribe opted out of the deal.

Under the agreement, federal agencies involved in the Northwest salmon issue will provide $900 million over 10 years to continue existing programs and to implement new priority fish projects with the tribes. The BPA will provide most of the funding.

The deal requires the tribes who signed on and the state of Idaho to refrain from litigation and agree that the federal government's requirements under the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act and Northwest Power Act are satisfied for the next 10 years.

But to salmon advocacy groups like Idaho Rivers United in Boise, the deal was nothing more than the federal government's trying to strengthen its hand just weeks before it was required to submit a new salmon recovery plan to U.S. District Judge James Redden on May 5. In previous rulings, Redden had rejected the plans and sent the planners back to the drawing boards.

Redden has yet to rule whether the new plan meets the requirements for recovery under the ESA. In previous rulings, Redden suggested he may take more drastic steps to force the federal government to meet the requirements of the ESA if the new plan does not adequately lay out a strategy to recover Northwest salmon stocks.

A similar deal also announced in April will provide an additional $65 million in funding for fish-recovery projects in Idaho. Part of the money will be spent on efforts to increase production of sockeye smolts as part of the state's captive breeding program.

While they applaud this summer's improved sockeye returns, Idaho environmentalists consider the Otter release, like those of his predecessors, more photo-op than substance. In a statement released after the governor took part in the Redfish Lake event, they warned that it will take more than the release of several dozen hatchery-born fish to restore Idaho's sockeye.

"We've been here before," said Bill Sedivy, executive director of the Boise-based IRU, which advocates the removal of all four lower Snake dams.

Sedivy fears the federal government will continue its "short-sighted policies" on salmon recovery and will not do enough to benefit from this summer's positive sockeye run. He said the same thing happened after 257 sockeye returned in 2000.

"Within a couple of years, sockeye returns fell back to single digits."

Jason Kauffman
Is This Salmon Recovery?
Idaho Mountain Express, September 10, 2008

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