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More Sockeye Making Journey up the Salmon

by Dan Hansen
Spokesman Review, July 14, 2000

Scientists warn that increase in Stanley Basin may be fleeting
if lasting changes not made

In a 1996 photo,
a schoolgirl holds a stuffed 'Lonesome Larry',
the only sockeye salmon to return
to Stanley Basin in 1992.
File - The Spokesman Review
In a 1996 photo, a schoolgirl holds a stuffed 'Lonesome Larry', the only sockeye salmon to return to Stanley Basin in 1992. File - The Spokesman Review

In all of the 1990s, just 18 sockeye salmon made the epic 900-mile journey from the Pacific Ocean to Idaho's Stanley Basin.

This year, they may number more than 100. And for the first time in nine years, sockeye that came to adulthood in the ocean, rather than in hatcheries, will spawn in their native lakes.

It's great news for scientists who have worked frantically to sustain the only run of Snake River sockeye. But they caution that none of the factors that caused a dramatic decline of the fish during the 20th century has been repaired. Rather, this year's increase results from a hatchery program that is no more than a life-support system.

One of the five species of Pacific salmon, sockeye spawn in lakes and feeder creeks from Oregon to Alaska. But no other run of sockeye -- and few salmon of any kind -- travel as far as those that start and end life in Redfish, Pettit and Alturas lakes, said Matt Powell, a University of Idaho fisheries geneticist. None faces longer odds against survival.

The Stanley Basin is 6,000 feet above sea level and framed by peaks that rise to 10,000 feet.

Nothing about the place says "ocean." Yet in the soil and trees are marine elements that were brought from the brine by the salmon. By analyzing those nutrients, and based on the amount of habitat available for spawning, scientists have estimated that at least 10,000 sockeye used to make the trip, and perhaps three times that number. The 4-pound fish, which turn crimson before they spawn and die, gave Redfish Lake its name.

"People planned to have a (fish) cannery there in the late 1800s, there were so many of them," said Paul Kline, a research biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

Historically, the fish spent the first year of their lives in the lakes, then rode the current down the Salmon River to the Snake River, then to the Columbia River, then to the Pacific, where most spent two years before reversing the journey.

For every 1,000 sockeye that left the lakes as smolts -- as scientists call young salmon ready for the journey to salt water -- some 20 to 60 survived the return trip.

Miners in 1910 dammed the Salmon River at Sunbeam, Idaho, blocking the migration route. Sportsmen blew up the dam in the 1930s, and the sockeye made a comeback. More than 4,000 adults spawned in 1956.

Since then, the run has steadily declined. Like salmon throughout the Columbia River system, they were harmed by a host of factors, including harmful logging and agricultural practices, overfishing, pollution, dams, artificially warm water and poor ocean conditions.

These days, one sockeye out of 1,000 survives the round trip to the ocean. In three scattered years in the 1990s, no salmon returned to Stanley Basin. In four years, there was only one, including the male that in 1992 was dubbed "Lonesome Larry."

The National Marine Fisheries Service added Snake River sockeye to the endangered species list in 1991.

Lonesome Larry's sperm was frozen at minus-105 degrees Fahrenheit. Every sockeye that has returned to the basin since him also was captured and stripped of eggs and sperm for the hatchery project. In 1997, state, federal and tribal scientists produced the first test-tube Snake River sockeye.

Some of the fertilized eggs were placed in the lakes for natural incubation. Others were raised to smolts and released in the spring, to make their own way to and from the ocean. Some were released into the lakes at maturity, and allowed to spawn naturally. And a few have lived their entire lives in the hatchery.

In 1998, about 140,000 sockeye smolts left the lakes. Last year, the lakes saw a return of seven jacks, as salmon that return to fresh water a year early are called.

So far this year, 190 sockeye have crossed Lower Granite Dam, the last of eight dams they must scale in their migration from the ocean. About 10 more show up every day, and the run could continue for a couple of weeks.

But the fish still have nearly 500 miles to swim before they reach Stanley Basin. Typically, about 40 percent die between the dam and the lakes, and the trip is especially arduous this year.

"What we've got is a low, hot river this year," Kline said.

Next year's run likely will be much smaller than this year's, considering that only 49,000 smolts left the lakes in 1999.

There are only two ways to produce bigger runs, said Kline: Produce more test-tube salmon in hatcheries or improve environmental conditions so more sockeye survive their round trip to the ocean.

Of those options, only the latter could produce a run of sockeye that eventually is self-sustaining.

Dan Hansen
More Sockeye Making Journey up the Salmon
Spokesman Review, July 14, 2000

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