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Sockeye solutions

Idaho's most endangered salmon begin perilous journey
Posted at 6:54 PM, Jun 03, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-04 02:05:51-04

STANLEY, Idaho — Idaho's salmon, including the critically endangered sockeye are headed downstream. It's a nine hundred mile journey for some, during which they undergo an amazing transformation.

"Their kidneys are reversing function, their gills are transforming, so that by the time they reach the estuary, eight hundred to eight hundred fifty miles from the place where we are standing (the Stanley Basin), they are very close to the total transformation they will need when they hit the salt water in the ocean," said salmon advocate Pat Ford.

That transformation once took less than two weeks, as raging spring runoff pushed the smolts downstream. But from Lewiston downstream the water no longer rages. It is a series of eight reservoirs created by eight dams on the Lower Snake and Columbia Rivers. Since construction of the last dam in the early 1970s, sockeye numbers have plummeted.

In the last five years, returns to this lake have been eleven, thirteen, thirty-three, fourteen and eleven," said Ford.

But sockeye aren't the only species in decline.

"If you zoom out you can see that they're really the canary in the coal mine for Idaho's other anadramous fish species," said Brian Brooks with Idaho Wildlife Federation. "As the sockeye go, so will go Chinook and steelhead, and Chinook and steelhead are really much more significant economic resource for the state of Idaho."

This year's return of Chinook salmon is a fraction of the ten year average, and so far, lower than last year's sparse return.

"Most of the fishing seasons are closed," said Justin Hayes of the Idaho Conservation League. "And hatchery managers are concerned we won't even get enough salmon and steelhead back to fulfill the hatchery needs, let alone fishing and harvesting."

So what is being done? Here in Idaho the Governor's Salmon Working group, comprised of dozens of environmental groups and river users, has been meeting for a year. Environmental groups are in solid agreement that the solution is to breach the four dams on the Lower Snake.

But river users, especially grain growers who use a system of barges to get their goods to market, fear that would decimate their livelihoods. And where there will be many who will resist removing dams no matter what, salmon advocates are hoping the working group will come up with solutions that will save Idaho's endangered and threatend fish while preserving a way of life that would benefit fish and people in the Columbia Basin.

"My group is very commited to saving Idaho Salmon," said Hayes. "We believe that will require removing dams. But we equally commited that as salmon recovery goes forward, communities in Idaho Washington and Oregon are kept whole and made better."