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Ecology and salmon related articles

Chinook Returns Respectable but Hatchery Reliant

Greg Stahl
Idaho Mountain Express - August 27, 2003

It’s not a record breaker, but chinook salmon are returning to their native spawning beds in Central Idaho’s Salmon River basin this year in relatively respectable numbers. Conversely, only two sockeye salmon have returned to the waters of the Sawtooth Valley.

Snake River basin chinook salmon were listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1992, a year after the system’s sockeye salmon were listed as endangered.

By Monday, Aug. 25, 99,572 chinook salmon, including 12,458 one-year-old jacks, crossed Lower Granite Dam on the lower Snake River. Another 12 sockeye crossed the dam, the last of eight dams the fish must pass on their 900-mile upstream migrations.

However, 56 to 60 percent of the returning chinook salmon are estimated to be raised in hatcheries. Numbers of naturally spawning fish, or wild Salmon, comprise less than half of the year’s run.

"It’s a good run, but it’s not up there in the records. 2001 was a recent record, and we’re below that," said Sharon Kiefer, Idaho Department of Fish and Game anadromous fisheries coordinator. "It’s certainly above the ten-year average in the 90s, though."

In the 1990s, at Lower Granite Dam, the largest chinook run contained about 46,500 salmon, while the smallest saw only 3,700 return, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Both sockeye that have arrived at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s Sawtooth Fish Hatchery were also hatchery-raised. It is unclear how many of the 12 sockeye that have crossed Lower Granite Dam were raised in hatcheries.

As chinook salmon begin establishing spawning beds, called redds, in stretches of the upper Salmon River, the Sawtooth National Recreation Area is closing sections of the river to floaters.

Stretches between the Sawtooth Fish Hatchery and Stanley, Mormon Bend to Sunbeam, Indian Riffles and Torrey’s Hole are closed to floating to protect spawning fish from disturbances.

"In addition to that, we’re having redds popping up all through the lower river, so things could change," said SNRA Recreation Program Manager Eric McQuay.

There are about 40 redds in the Salmon River between the fish hatchery and Stanley and only "a handful" downstream of Stanley, McQuay said.

But those numbers should increase quickly.

"They’re popping up regularly the last day or so, and we’ll be making adjustments daily, so if anyone wants to float, the message to get out is that adjustments are being made to the floating system 24 to 48 hours after the redds pop up."

Also last week, government agencies and anadromous fish advocates gathered in Stanley for the annual Sawtooth Salmon Festival, which celebrates the region’s salmon-rooted heritage.

This year’s event was very successful, said Jennifer Dyste, a U.S. Forest Service interpretive assistant at the Redfish Visitor Center. More than 100 people attended, many of whom asked compelling questions.

"There is a lot of misinformation out there," Dyste said. "Lots of people just don’t know, and I think people are really curious about spawning."

According to Kiefer, this year’s good returns can primarily be attributed to improving conditions in the Pacific Ocean.

"We’ve had a regime shift in the ocean that has led to more average conditions," she said. That means an improvement in water temperature, food resources and ocean currents, to name a few of the variables.

Greg Stahl
Chinook Returns Respectable but Hatchery Reliant
Idaho Mountain Express August 27, 2003

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