Idaho Sockeye struggle

Idaho's anadromous fish runs are dwindling
Posted at 11:47 AM, Sep 13, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-13 13:47:46-04

Every day in August and September fish and game workers check a trap in Redfish Lake Creek, hoping to find sockeye salmon.  On days when the trap does yield sockeye, workers  load them into a truck which lands at the Eagle Hatchery.

Managers mark each fish.. take a DNA sample.. and inject antibiotics in a complex system of recovery that started in the late nineties.  From 1991 to 1998, only sixteen sockeye survived the nine hundred mile journey from the Pacific Ocean to their birthplace in the Stanley Basin, including "Lonesome Larry" whose sperm was cryogenically preserved then spread among sockeye that were captured on their way downstream to the pacific ocean and raised in captivity in eagle.

Dan baker/eagle fish hatchery manager: "And as those smolts started to mature, we were able to take eggs from them and select eggs for the next generation and rear in captivity here at the hatchery."

 "Basically sockeye are on life support. It's a totally managed program," says Kevin Lewis who is the executive director of Idaho Rivers United. While the captive breeding program has saved snake river sockeye from extinction, he says the species remains on the brink. "We're so far from recovery it's not even close"

Fish and game managers predict around 105 sockeye will make it to Stanley this year.  They say ocean warming is causing several species to decline, but most of *this year's sockeye run died after managers released them into Redfish Lake.  The lake's low alkaline water didn't match the high alkaline water in the Springfield hatchery where they were raised. 

The 13-million dollar Springfield hatchery was built with money provided by the bonneville power administration as part of the Columbia fish accords.

Idaho, Washington and most of the Columbia Basin tribes agreed not to sue or advocate for removal of dams in exchange for millions of dollars for fish recovery. The sockeye recovery program alone costs four million dollars every year.

 "We have spent somewhere north of 15 billion dollars trying to recover salmon over the last twenty years. We haven't moved the needle  at all towards recovery," said Lewis.  "Clearly what we've been doing hasn't worked. We need to do something different."

Lewis admits that ocean warming is a part of the short term problem, but iru and other fish advocates say salmon could tolerate cyclical conditions if most of them weren't killed on the way downstream through the four dams on the lower Snake River.

Baker says he's confident the captive breeding program will work "As we build it up to a million smolts per year we could see between four and five thousand adults come back from those releases."     That's still a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of thousands of sockeye that once returned to Idaho lakes including Payette  and Redfish Lake, named for the fish that turn red when preparing to spawn.

Lewis says breeching four dams on the Lower Snake River is the only way to achieve true recovery for this generation  "They announced awhile back 'yeah we think we can restore these species in a hundred years.'  well we don't have a hundred years. I'm not willing to wait a hundred years. We need to do something different now."

Idaho sockeye are one of four anadromous fish species protected under the endangered species act. This time of year many steelhead anglers are usually gearing up for the fall season, but this year's steelhead return is now projected to be the lowest in at least forty years, prompting fish and game to reduce the daily bag limit to one fish per angler.