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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of December 17 - 23, 2003


Only two sockeye return

Decade of poor runs continues

"These are extremely resilient critters, and if we give them a chance they’ll come back. We can’t continue to cut them off and cut them off. If we give them a chance, they’ll do it."

BILL HORTON, Idaho Department of Fish and Game anadromous fisheries coordinator

Express Staff Writer

Continuing a series of dismal return years, two sockeye salmon completed the 900-mile spawning run from the Pacific Ocean to Idaho’s Sawtooth Valley this fall.

Sockeye salmon have been on a hatchery-driven life support system for more than a decade. In 1993, former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus joined Hollywood actress Jamie Lee Curtis to release hatchery-raised adult sockeye salmon into Redfish Lake in the shadow of the Sawtooth Mountians. "I can only say to you that I hope the adults that we’re releasing here today will have the opportunity to spawn and that their smolts, the juveniles, will escape passage through those lethal barriers that man has created downstream for them," Andrus said. Express photo by Willy Cook

The two fish are among the last remnants of historic Salmon River sockeye runs that once numbered in the tens of thousands, gathering in such multitudes in Redfish Lake, south of Stanley, that their pigmented skin was said to give the illusion of red water.

The two fish are also the result of a hatchery program that has kept the species on life support for the last 12 years, since Salmon River sockeye were listed as endangered in 1991.

But with dismal returns like this year’s and in 1995 and 1997, when zero sockeye returned to Idaho, the genetic stockpile needed to successfully drive the hatchery program could be dwindling.

"We’re going through a tremendous bottleneck," said Bill Horton, anadromous fisheries coordinator for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. "We don’t know if we can recover."

But Dan Baker, manager of Fish and Game’s Eagle Hatchery, said the program isn’t designed to stimulate large returns and recover the species.

"It is focused on protecting the genetic material we had when the program began," he said. "I think we have a broad enough genetic base right now. We’re not to that point (of protecting from absolute extinction)."

According to Fish and Game records dating to the 1950s, returning sockeye populations have fluctuated from year to year. The overall trend, however, was downward through the 1990s, and has continued to bump along at rock bottom levels. Only 23 sockeye returned to the Sawtooth Valley through the entire decade of the 1990s.

With assistance from hatchery programs, more than 200 sockeye returned in 2000. But the prosperity was short lived. In 2001, 23 sockeye came back. In 2002, only 15 fish returned.

The words of former Fish and Game fisheries biologist Dave Cannamela, issued in 2000 when hatchery-raised sockeye returns were relatively high, proved prophetic.

"To treat this with a lot of optimism is not the way it should be portrayed," he said in response to statements made by Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho. "We need lots of years of improved conditions, and we cannot expect Mother Nature to improve conditions with these dams in place.

"The real problem is still there. The artery still has the clogs in it. The patient is still in the emergency room. When things go bad again, as we know they will, we’ll be back to really bad—and even worse—shape."

According to most scientists, the decline of sockeye, as well as chinook and coho salmon and other fish species in the Columbia, Snake and Salmon river basins, is due to a combination of factors. The harnessing of the rivers behind dams, however, is widely believed to be the primary reason for the decline of anadromous fish species.

"It is generally accepted that hydropower development on the lower Snake and Columbia rivers is the primary cause of decline and continued suppression of Snake River salmon and steelhead," according to a 1998 Fish and Game document called "Idaho’s Anadromous Fish Stocks: Their Status and Recovery Options."

While researchers estimate that between 5 and 10 percent of adult salmon heading upriver die at each dam they must pass, it is the young salmon, called smolts, that face the highest mortality rates as they drift on river currents toward the Pacific. An estimated 15 to 30 percent die at each dam they encounter, and, for fish that originate in Idaho, there are eight dams to circumvent.

On the entire Columbia and Snake river systems in the United States and Canada, there are 119 dams, some with fish ladders and some without.

All the dams together have altered the river to little more than a series of slow-moving lakes. This almost stagnate water is what poses the greatest danger to young, migrating salmon smolts.

Despite the dismal numbers, however, Horton said he believes sockeye salmon can bounce back.

"These are extremely resilient critters, and if we give them a chance they’ll come back," he said. "We can’t continue to cut them off and cut them off. If we give them a chance, they’ll do it."

But first, society must determine that the fish are important enough to make the effort, he said.

"We need to have either a combination of good years to get them to come back or have some management changes in the system to allow us to get these fish back," he said. "We’ve shown very well that we can produce a lot of fish in a hatchery."

Baker, too, said he believes some good water years could help sockeye and other Snake and Salmon river salmon species make a comeback.

"The hatchery program is designed to maintain the runs until we can answer some migration questions, until conditions are improved," he said. "There are a lot of questions out there that we don’t have answers for."

As for next year’s class of 2004, returns could be relatively respectable, Baker said.

In 2001, Fish and Game released 100,000 several-month-old pre-smolts. In 2002, biologists released 38,000 one-year-old smolts. Both of those releases should return next August.

"It’s hard to say," he said. "It looks like it should be up from what last year was."



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