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Ecology and salmon related articles

Return of the Wild

by Editors
The Oregonian, July 1, 2000

Sockeye salmon breeding experiment in Idaho pays off,
demonstrating the influence of ocean conditions

Lonesome Larry, it appears, has an extended family.

Larry, you may recall, was the solitary Snake River sockeye salmon counted by biologists at a key spawning ground in the grim summer of 1992, when it seemed nearly certain that his kind would die forever.

But dramatic changes in ocean conditions have sparked an unexpected, near-record return of salmon to the Columbia River Basin.

Beneficiaries of this change in the natural condition -- one that has been kind to almost all stocks of salmon and steelhead along the West Coast -- are the endangered sockeye that spawn in Redfish Lake in central Idaho.

Just eight years ago, when ocean conditions were harsh for salmon survival, only one Snake River sockeye salmon -- our friend Larry -- returned to Redfish Lake, which is the only place that particular fish stock spawns.

Biologists captured Larry that summer and used him in a desperation captive breeding program launched the year before when Snake River sockeye became the first Columbia Basin salmon run listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

This spring, in late May, the first sockeye was counted at Lower Granite Dam on the lower Snake, headed for Redfish Lake. By mid-June, seven had been counted -- the first real indication that the $5 million-a-year captive broodstock program worked. Fish managers now predict that 168 Redfish Lake sockeye will make it back this year.

Larry's clan is not the only stock that got help from Mother Nature. Wild sockeye salmon, most of them bound for Lake Wenatchee in Washington state, have come home this summer at the rate of about six times the average of the past 10 years.

And spring chinook returns, originally forecast at 134,000 fish, topped 200,000 this spring. Biologists now expect that later runs of salmon, including the fall chinook that are the mainstay of remaining sport and tribal fisheries, will also be strong, this year and next.

These surprising developments don't mean that the region has fixed the freshwater problems that plague salmon and steelhead. But they do mean that the region has bought some time to make sure that the recovery choices we ultimately choose will work; that they will represent a good investment; and that they will not wreck the region's economy.

All of this good news may not even settle the debate raging over whether to breach four Snake River dams, but it does suggest that ocean conditions may be the most influential variable in the complex -- and only partly understood -- equation of salmon survival.

It should be noted, too, that some of these ocean survivors benefited from other minor changes in the freshwater habitat over which we do have some control. Such things as the steady improvements in bypass systems at dams; in salmon collection and barging techniques; in launching habitat restoration projects; in overhauls of antequated hatchery practices; and in more conservative fishing regimes have played a role in the large return of fish.

So what is all of this telling us? Certainly it's not that we should declare victory. Yet clearly the salmon are doing much better now.

It may be the moment for the Northwest to settle on some regional strategies to aid in salmon recovery. Work started now can make it easier for Larry's suddenly thriving descendants to get back home the next time the ocean isn't so friendly.

Return of the Wild
The Oregonian, July 1, 2000

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