the film
Commentaries and editorials

Will Program Preserve
Lonesome Larry's Thin Genetic Line?

by Michael Garrity
Columbia Basin Bulletin, June 16, 2006

A Snake River sockeye salmon captive broodstock hatchery program that continues the genetic line of "Lonesome Larry" earned a groundswell of support this week after receiving a critical scientific review.

Idaho's new governor, James Risch, said Wednesday that the federal government, in particular, and the region needs to do more to help beleaguered stocks such as Idaho's sockeye salmon -- not less as the Independent Scientific Review Panel recommends.

The ISRP in a June 1 report urged an end to the hatchery program that has for the past decade been the only thing preventing the sockeye stock from going extinct. It cited the "dismal performance" of the program in terms of producing adult returns and a growing genetic divergence that reduces the potential for ever reviving a naturally spawning sockeye population.

Risch agreed with the ISRP's conclusion that the meager returns are the result of degraded habitat conditions, predation and harvests that take their toll as the sockeye swim the 900 miles to the ocean, and back again.

He said greater hatchery production is needed to truly test the stock's recovery potential and keep the population alive until out-of-basin issues can be addressed.

Fishing and conservation groups used the ISRP report, and a Wednesday decision to fund an expansion of the program, to push again for demolition of Snake River dams to ease sockeye passage upriver and generally help efforts to rejuvenate depleted Columbia/Snake river basin salmon and steelhead stocks.

Lonesome Larry was so-nicked named after swimming up the Columbia, Snake and Salmon rivers alone in 1992, the only sockeye salmon returning to central Idaho's Redfish Lake that year.

The "Snake River" sockeye's plight make headlines across the region and the nation after Larry's solo return. Sockeye returns to the Sawtooth Basin's Redfish Lake in the 1950s and 1960s numbered more than 1,000, according to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

By 1991 numbers had slumped to a level that required the stock's listing as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Only 14 more naturally produced sockeye followed Larry back to the basin to spawn, the last in 1998. Many of those last wild spawners were captured and brought into the captive broodstock program beginning in 1992 so that they could be spawned artificially, and a portion of their eggs preserved, to produce future generations.

The products -- smolts, pre-smolts, eyed eggs, prespawn adults -- have been released into basin lakes and streams in hopes that they would complete their life cycle and come back from the ocean to spawn. But, aside from a 257-fish return in 2000, the returns have been 26 or fewer.

The program has been funded since the early 1990s through the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's fish and wildlife program. The program drew more than $2 million in the 2006 budget, which is financed by the Bonneville Power Administration. The Council on Wednesday recommended that $2.75 million be spent yet this year to nearly double the program's smolt production capabilities. Bonneville officials have said the agency favors the extra expenditure to meet its obligation under the ESA.

The decision came despite an ISRP review of 2007-2009 project proposals that recommended the program be ended.

"The returns are so low now, that doubling them by doubling the smolt production would not yield the returns identified as needed in the proposal. Failure of sockeye to respond significantly to the recent 1999-2002 upturn in ocean conditions suggests that the population is no longer able to respond to the environment," the ISRP wrote.

The past three years' returns to the lake, all hatchery-produced fish, were 6, 27 and 3. Other Columbia Basin salmon stocks witnessed a relative resurgence following the favorable turn of ocean conditions.

"This is, however, not only a numerical problem, but also a viability problem," the ISRP wrote. "The greater the time these fish are dependent on support of 'artificial' propagation methods, the greater the genetic divergence from the original population and the lower the potential for producing a self-sustaining population.

"Given this inevitable divergence, fish transplanted from other populations in the basin or adjacent basins are likely to be as suitable founders as are any remaining 'Stanley Basin fish' that might be available if habitat conditions are restored at some time in the future."

"The view of the ISRP is that there is no scientific basis for continuing this program," the panel said.

While acknowledging that the available genetic pool is forever constrained, the IDFG's Paul Kline said the remaining broodstock and eggs from natural spawners contains genetic materials still better adapted to the 6,000 altitude of the Sawtooth Valley than out-of-basin stock. The expansion would bring back more anadromous fish that can be infused in the captive broodstock program to help slow the loss of genetic fitness and reduce risks associated with domestication.

The IDFG would like to move to a more "aggressive" approach aimed at attaining a long-term goal of building strong, naturally producing sockeye populations. The state agency has submitted a $6.8 million proposal for funding during the 2007-2009 period to develop an in-state rearing facility to further expand production by 385,000 smolts.

The program's ultimate goal is to restore naturally spawning populations to levels that allow them to be delisted. The immediate goal is to keep the stock from extinction until some of the out-of-basin causes of their mortality can be addressed.

That will require time and money, Gov. James Risch told the NPCC Wednesday during its meeting in Boise.

He said that Congress and federal agencies responsible for enforcing the ESA "do not understand the charge that they have given us in the West," Risch said. "They have not been overly generous ... given what they have asked us to do."

"We need more help than we are getting from the federal government," Risch said. That includes funding research to better understand how ocean conditions affect Columbia Basin salmon populations, and actions to address other fish mortality factors such as predators.

Harvest levels "need to be revisited" by NOAA Fisheries, Risch said. NOAA ESA harvest agreements allow a certain amount of "incidental take" of listed stocks during fisheries for non-listed species.

He said that, during dam "breaching" debates several years ago, he compared returns to the Columbia and Snake with those to British Columbia's Fraser River and found them comparable. There are no dams on the Fraser.

He decided then that "probably the dams (on the Columbia and Snake) were not the issue."

Fishing and conservation groups, who pushed for dam breaching then and now, disagree.

"American Rivers supports continued efforts to jumpstart Snake River sockeye recovery with emergency hatchery operations," said Michael Garrity, associate director of Columbia Basin Programs for American Rivers. "But the council's decision to keep funding the hatchery operations without doing anything to improve salmon survival by addressing the impacts of downstream dams makes no sense.

"To save the sockeye, and to save money in the long run, we need to get these fish off artificial life-support and restore the river habitat they need to recover," Garrity said, adding that the ISRP report shows the need for bold action.

"Fortunately, there's a solution that will work for sockeye, other species of Snake River salmon, and Northwest communities, and that is restoring a free-flowing lower Snake River," Garrity said. "Removing the four high cost, low value dams on the lower Snake will allow for a more cost-effective and biologically effective plan to recover Snake River salmon."

Michael Garrity
Will Program Preserve Lonesome Larry's Thin Genetic Line?
Columbia Basin Bulletin, June 16, 2006

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation