First Sockeye Returns
River water is cooler this year
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game reports that the first sockeye salmon of the summer made it back to the Sawtooth Valley on Tuesday, July 19.
The fish completed a 900-mile journey that included crossing through eight dams and swimming 6,500 vertical feet from the ocean to the weir at Redfish Lake Creek, where it was transported by Fish and Game to Redfish Lake.
Through July 19, an estimated 1,029 sockeye bound for Idaho had crossed Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. Of those, 730 had crossed Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River, which is about 25 miles downstream from Lewiston and the last dam the fish cross before reaching Idaho.
After crossing Lower Granite Dam, the fish still have to swim about 400 miles to return to their spawning grounds in the Stanley area. Sockeye travel the farthest of all Idaho salmon, swimming more than 900 miles and climbing more than 6,500 feet in elevation to their home waters in the Sawtooth Valley.
Since 2009, survival from Bonneville Dam to the Stanley Basin has ranged from a low of 1 percent last year to a high of 60 percent in 2010.
Last year, a heat wave warmed temperatures in the Columbia River to lethal levels that killed 99 percent of the sockeye run. The rivers are cooler this year and migration conditions more favorable, but it's still a perilous trip for the fish, the Department of Fish and Game stated.
In the 1880s an estimated 25,000 to 35,000 sockeye would return annually to the Sawtooth Valley and Payette River basin. Dam building starting in the early 1900s reduced their range and population. Historically, five Sawtooth Valley lakes (Redfish, Alturas, Pettit, Stanley and Yellowbelly) supported sockeye salmon. Now, only Redfish Lake receives a remnant anadromous run. In 1992, only one sockeye -- named Lonesome Larry -- made it back to Redfish Lake.
Idaho's sockeye salmon were listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1991 -- the first Idaho salmon species to be listed.
A captive broodstock program was initiated in the 1990s at the Eagle Fish Hatchery with 16 adult sockeye -- 11 males and five females -- taken into captivity from 1991 to 1998. Through advanced aquaculture techniques, the program has retained about 95 percent of the species' remaining genetic variability, the Department of Fish and Game stated.
The broodstock program has since evolved into a hatchery program to produce sockeye for release into the wild. Millions of sockeye eggs and fish have been released into lakes and streams in the Sawtooth Valley. Hatchery sockeye that migrated to the ocean and returned as adults are once again spawning in Redfish Lake and producing naturally spawned offspring.
Last year, 396 female sockeye salmon were spawned at the Eagle Fish Hatchery. More than 423,000 smolts and 592 adults were released into Redfish Lake, Pettit Lake and Redfish Lake Creek.
Over the past eight years, since the department expanded its hatchery program, an average of 770 sockeye have made it back to Redfish Lake. Of those, 82 percent have been hatchery fish and 18 percent naturally spawned fish. In 2014, 1,516 sockeye returned -- the highest number since 1955.
"Kept on biological life-support for more than two decades, Idaho's iconic sockeye salmon are making a comeback," the Department of Fish and Game states on its website.
The landlocked version of the sockeye is one of Idaho's most popular fisheries. Kokanee, or blueback, are found in many lakes and reservoirs. When they migrate to spawn along shorelines or up rivers, kokanee assume the characteristic red body color and green heads, much like sockeye. Like their sockeye cousins, kokanee also die after spawning.
Count the Fish, 1977-2014, Salmon Recovery Effortsby GAO
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