the film

Sockeye Head Toward Sawtooths

by Rocky Barker
Idaho Statesman, August 14, 2006

Fish and Game biologist hopes up to 8 of 15 will make it through
final leg of journey to Redfish Lake

A lonely sockeye salmon loitered Sunday in a pool on the Salmon River below the Sawtooth Hatchery, waiting to make its final trip home.

The endangered red fish is one of only 15 that passed through Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River in Washington, the last of eight dams between Idaho and the Pacific. If history is a good guide, up to eight of those fish may complete the final 452-mile trip past Lewiston, up the Salmon River, through Idaho's wilderness and into the Sawtooth Valley.

"They're starting to come back," said Paul Kline, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologist in charge of the sockeye captive breeding program.

The sockeye return either to a weir on Redfish Lake Creek or to a trap at the Sawtooth Hatchery, depending on where they are released and whether they came from naturally spawning fish in Redfish Lake. Some sockeye also return to Pettit and Alturas lakes, located above the hatchery, and are captured in the trap.

The sockeye, like all salmon runs this year, are arriving slightly later than usual, Kline said. But he is hopeful half of the 15 fish seen at Lower Granite will survive the last leg of the journey. "We're still averaging 54 to 55 percent conversion since this program started," Kline said.

Sockeye were listed as an endangered species in 1991 as the population was heading toward extinction. The fish caught the region's imagination in 1992, when Lonesome Larry was the only sockeye to return to Redfish Lake.

He and just over a dozen other native sockeye that returned in the early 1990s provided the sperm and eggs for sockeye raised in several hatcheries and released back into the wild since as part of the captive breeding program. Earlier this year, an 11-member Independent Science Review Panel said downstream threats such as dams, predators and fishing, coupled with reduced genetic resiliency in the small sockeye population, make the $2.5 million annual program ineffective.

Last year, 23 sockeye made the trip to Lower Granite, but only six returned to the Sawtooth Valley.

"It's so sad to me to really think they might not come back," said Amanda Peacher, outreach director for Idaho Rivers United in Boise. "These fish are barely on life support."

The sockeye that return are captured and carefully cross-bred with sockeye raised their entire lives in hatcheries and with resident sockeye that remain in Redfish Lake. This cross-breeding is designed to preserve the genetic diversity of the fish so they remain hardy and healthy. Idaho's sockeye travel farther and climb higher -- 6,500 feet -- than any other sockeye in the world.

"It's a miracle that even one can make the 900-mile journey through eight dams and reservoirs back to Redfish," Peacher said.

Kline acknowledges the sockeye program is not a recovery program, but a last-ditch effort to prevent their extinction. It has become one of the most popular salmon programs among Idaho leaders, including Gov. Jim Risch who urged the Northwest Power and Conservation Council in June to continue its support for the program despite scientists' criticism.

Peacher doesn't want the program to end, but she wants more done to help sockeye, including removing Lower Granite and three other dams on the Snake River in Washington.

"If we really want to bring sockeye back, it's time for the federal government to admit that the status quo isn't working," she said.

The fate of Idaho's sockeye has long been linked to dams. Sunbeam Dam was built across the Salmon River in 1910 to provide electricity to mines in the Yankee Fork area, cutting sockeye off from Redfish Lake and other spawning lakes in the Sawtooth Basin. Few if any sockeye returned to the lake for 20 years until 1931, when local sportsmen blew up the dam. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game finished the job in 1934.

Miraculously, 200 sockeye were seen spawning in Redfish by biologists in 1942. By 1955, spawner numbers had grown to 4,361. As more dams were built on the Snake and Columbia rivers, sockeye numbers declined until Lower Granite was finished in 1975, after which sockeye plunged to only double- and single-digit returns until 1995, when no sockeye returned to Redfish Lake.

Rocky Barker, a Bainbridge gardener, is the author of several gardening books.
Sockeye Head Toward Sawtooths
Idaho Statesman, August 14, 2006

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