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Snake River Sockeye Featured in American
Fisheries Magazine; Natural Origin Fish Recovering?

by Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin, November 21, 2014

(Darin Oswald photo) Lonesome Larry was the only sockeye salmon to make it to Idaho's Redfish Lake to spawn in 1992. His sperm was used to preserve a strain of the salmon that was on the edge of extinction. Snake River sockeye salmon, once virtually extinct with one wild fish, or none, returning annually to central Idaho's Sawtooth Valley, have rallied to the point that they are cover boys and girls for this month's American Fisheries Society's Fisheries magazine.

An article tracing the fall and rise of North America's southernmost sockeye population is featured in a Fisheries issue published online this morning that focuses on aquaculture -- the human rearing of aquatic organisms.

The emphasis is on the rise.

The research paper says that naturally spawned juvenile sockeye are returning to Idaho as adults at a much higher rate than others released from hatcheries. Biologists believe the increased return rate of sockeye spawned naturally by hatchery-produced parents is high enough for the species to eventually sustain itself in the wild again.

The aquaculture term covers wide ranging purposes, from farming fish for food to raising fish in hatcheries to feed sport and commercial fisheries and to aiding in the conservation of fish species that are listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, such as the endangered Snake River sockeye.

"We are particularly proud to feature an article by Kline and Flagg, detailing the substantial progress that has been made in applying conservation aquaculture to the restoration of Snake River sockeye salmon, arguably one of the most unique and endangered salmonid stocks in the world," the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Jim Bowker said in an introduction to the newly published Fisheries issue.

"Bringing these fish back from the brink of extinction is an incredible success and feel-good story. There is still work to be done, but more Snake River sockeye have returned this year than in any year since 1956."

The aquaculture-themed issue can be found at:

The sockeye article, "Putting the Red Back in Redfish Lake, 20 Years of Progress Toward Saving the Pacific Northwest's Most Endangered Salmon Population" outlines the history of the stock and the captive broodstock program created to stave off extinction, and plans for the future.

Lead author is Paul A. Kline, assistant chief of Fisheries, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, and co-author is Thomas A. Flagg, supervisory fishery biologist and manager of NOAA Fisheries' Manchester Research Station in Manchester, Wash.

Flagg was a member of the NOAA Fisheries (National Marine Fisheries Service) team that more than two decades ago evaluated the status of a severely depleted Snake River sockeye salmon stock. The agency in November 1991 listed the species as endangered.

He was also a part of a recovery team that ultimately decided "that the only chance they had was to bring them into captivity" to preserve the genetic stock from the few returning spawners witnessed in the years leading up to the listing.

Earlier in 1991 the Snake River Sockeye Salmon Captive Broodstock Program was launched by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. The immediate goal of the program is to utilize captive broodstock technology to conserve the population's unique genetics.

Long-term goals include increasing the number of individuals in the population to address NOAA's interim abundance guidelines and to provide sport and treaty harvest opportunity. Draft ESA delisting criteria for Snake River sockeye salmon includes the return of 1,000 adults to Redfish Lake, 500 adults to Pettit Lake, and 500 adults to Alturas Lake for two generations. Interim abundance targets must be met without relying on hatchery production, but on natural origin adults.

NOAA Fisheries earlier this year released a proposed recovery plan for Snake River sockeye, which calls for an average of 1,000 naturally spawned sockeye returning to Redfish Lake each year, with similar targets for other lakes in Idaho's Sawtooth Valley. About 460 naturally spawned sockeye returned to Redfish Lake this year -- the most since the program began -- out of an overall record return of 1,600.

(See CBB, July 25, 2014, "Draft Snake River Sockeye Recovery Plan Released For Comment; $101 Million Over 25 Years")

Project cooperators include representatives from Idaho Fish and Game, NOAA, Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, and the Bonneville Power Administration.

The present-day Redfish Lake sockeye salmon captive broodstocks were established from 16 anadromous adults, 26 residual sockeye salmon, and 886 out-migrating smolts collected during the early-mid 1990s from Redfish Lake and surrounding habitats. Residual sockeye salmon are genetically similar to anadromous sockeye salmon but complete their life cycle in fresh water.

Kline came on board in 1993 as a sockeye evaluation biologist. He missed 1991, when only four sockeye spawners returned to the central Idaho high country, and 1992, when only "Lonesome Larry" was known to survive the 900-mile trip up the Columbia, Snake and Salmon rivers. But he was involved in the program through succeeding lean years, taking over in 1996 as the IDFG's leader for both the hatchery and monitoring and evaluation components of the program and serving in that post until 2006, when returns started to grow.

Both Flagg and Kline believe that the stock status could be improved, and even reach recovery status, with the help of the hatchery program, habitat restoration and improved hydro system operations downstream in the Snake and Columbia.

"We believed they had the fitness to get the job done," Flagg said of the sockeye.

"In the ensuing two decades since the ESA listing, many actions have been taken to conserve the population, including the initiation of a hatchery-based gene rescue program," according to the research article's abstract. "The chief aim of this article is to describe the development and implementation of hatchery-based gene rescue activities, review present-day release strategies and associated adult returns, and describe a new effort under way to expand program production to more effectively address recolonization and local adaptation objectives.

"In addition, we describe achievable population triggers to allow the transition from a hatchery-based effort to a habitat-based effort that should allow natural population recovery to proceed," the article says.

"Overall, the Redfish Lake sockeye salmon captive broodstock effort has experienced much better success than the earlier captive broodstock gene rescue programs described by Flagg and Mahnken (1995, 2000) and Schiewe et al. (1997)," according to the paper's conclusion.

"Since the first program-produced adults started returning from the ocean in 1999, over 4,500 adults have been collected at sites in the Sawtooth Valley, over 275 times the number that returned from wild spawners during the entire decade of the 1990s.

"Smolt-to-adult return rates of naturally produced sockeye salmon have exceeded rates of adults produced from hatchery-reared smolts by greater than threefold. This is a critical program observation because it demonstrates the potential for the population to become self-sustaining and effectively address draft NMFS recovery objectives," according to the article.

"Many authors have suggested that reversal of hatchery based reductions in fitness would take at best many generations to resolve (Lynch and O'Healy 2001; Ford 2002). Similar to findings developed by Galbreath et al. (2014) for Coho Salmon (O. kisutch), our data suggest that fitness recovery could be much more immediate," the article says.

"The survival advantages and apparent rapid increased fitness demonstrated by sockeye salmon hatched in Redfish Lake have allowed the development of realistic population triggers for the program's expansion effort.

"This type of natural rebuilding scenario is the hoped for result when conservationists intervene to rescue depleted populations."

Biologists caution that the current results span only three years so far, but indicate that fitness -- and, in turn, survival -- can improve in as little as only one generation in the wild.

"We hoped we could get returns equivalent to what you'd expect to see from a hatchery," Flagg said. "We've seen the population respond even better than that, which bodes well for the idea that the lakes can produce the juveniles you'd want to see to get to recovery."

"This is a real American endangered species success story," said Will Stelle, administrator of NOAA Fisheries' West Coast Region. "With only a handful of remaining fish, biologists brought the best genetic science to bear and the region lent its lasting support. Now there is real potential that this species will be self-sustaining again. The sockeye didn't give up hope and neither did we."

A cooperative scientific planning effort involving representatives of states, tribes, federal government and non-governmental entities has helped push the plan forward.

"It seems highly likely that without the steps undertaken by the Redfish Lake Sockeye Salmon captive broodstock program, this ESA-listed endangered stock would currently be extinct. It also seems a virtual certainty that the steps described above have put the population on the road to recovery," the report concludes.

The program funded by the Bonneville Power Administration has released more than 3.8 million sockeye eggs and fish into lakes and streams in the Sawtooth Valley, and tracks the fish that return from the ocean. Hatchery fish returning as adults have also begun spawning again in Redfish Lake, increasingly producing naturally spawned offspring that are now also returning.

Related Sites:
Northwest Fisheries Science Center Salmon captive broodstock programs
Idaho Fish & Game's Sockeye program

Related Pages:
FEEDBACK: Snake River Sockeye Recovery Plan by Scott Levy, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 11/19/10
New $13 Million Snake River Sockeye Hatchery Opens by Staff, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 9/13/13
Let's Start Talking About Delisting Sockeye by Scott Levy, Idaho Statesman, 11/19/14
Snake River Sockeye Show Highest Returns To Sawtooth Valley Since 1950s by Staff, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 9/19/14
New $13 Million Snake River Sockeye Hatchery Opens; Goal Is Recolonization In Sawtooth Basin by Staff, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 9/13/13
Count the Fish, 1977-2014 Salmon Recovery Efforts, by Government Accountability Office

Snake River Sockeye Featured in American Fisheries Magazine; Natural Origin Fish Recovering?
Columbia Basin Bulletin, November 21, 2014

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