Sockeye salmon returns to Idaho's Sawtooth Basin have risen to the highest levels since 1955 when 4,361 wild fish were trapped as they headed up Redfish Lake Creek to spawn.
The trapping was conducted from 1954 through 1964 as part of a University of Idaho research project.
The times since 1955 have been particularly lean with Snake River sockeye numbers so low that many feared the species would go extinct.
Between 1991 and 1998, only 16 wild sockeye salmon returned to Idaho and all were incorporated into a captive breeding program that was begun in 1991, the same year the stock was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
The Redfish Lake Sockeye Captive Broodstock Program, a multi-agency and tribal effort, was initiated to protect population genetic structure and to prevent the further decline of Snake River sockeye salmon. The program produces eggs and fish – both smolts and adults -- to reintroduce to the habitat to increase population numbers. The program, led by IDFG, is largely funded through the Bonneville Power Administration.
The program has helped produced -- with the help of improved freshwater migration and ocean conditions -- a surge in adult returns over the past three years. Between 1999 and 2007, 355 hatchery-produced adult sockeye salmon returned to the Sawtooth Valley.
But the count was 650 in 2008 and then jumped 833 last year. And already this year IDFG biologists have trapped 929 sockeye. That total includes 19 that were trapped at Lower Granite Dam on the lower Snake River about 400 miles downstream and transported for holding at Eagle Hatchery near Boise.
Another 910 were trapped at either Sawtooth Hatchery or in Redfish Lake Creek in the Sawtooth Valley. Most were transported 130 miles from the Sawtooth Valley to Eagle Hatchery, where in past years all trapped fish have been held so that biologists can determine which of the fish would be incorporated into the broodstock program and which would later be released into Redfish Lake to spawn on their own.
Given the relatively large numbers of spawners this year, the IDFG began setting free some of the sockeye from the Redfish Lake Creek trap so they can continue on their spawning journey. Of the total about 200 have been released back into the creek, which flows from Redfish Lake and its spawning grounds.
The rebuilding to the wild population is starting to build momentum. Of the 929 that returned to the valley through Thursday, 154 were unmarked, which means they neither carried identifying tags nor sported fin clips. That means they are the product of anadromous spawners returned to the lake to spawn naturally, "residual" sockeye that never left freshwater, or the outplanting of fertilized eggs.
U.S Sen.Mike Crapo of Idaho was on hand Aug. 11 to witness sockeye swimming up Redfish Lake Creek toward the lake for the first time in 20 years.
"It's a ray of hope," Crapo said, "A testament to the power and strength of this fish."
Crapo was one of several federal, state and tribal officials to visit central Idaho's high country last week to celebrate the large sockeye return. They gathered on the bank of Redfish Lake Creek for a hands-on experience with a fish that had almost disappeared from Idaho. It was in 1990 that the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes petitioned to list sockeye under the ESA.
"It isn't magic, but it is magical," said Ed Schreiver, the IDFG's fisheries bureau chief. "We're not here because of luck, but because of sound science behind the program."
The program has kept the fish's genetics intact for the time when river and ocean conditions would allow sockeye to rebound. The last several years have provided that opportunity.
"Salmon really are a resilient species," said Barry Thom, NOAA Fisheries deputy administrator. NOAA Fisheries is charged with protecting ESA listed salmon species,
"They really do want to reproduce. If we give them half a chance, they'll take it."
The IDFG estimates 1,400 fish will complete their 900-mile freshwater journey from the ocean up the Columbia, Snake and Salmon rivers to Idaho this year. A total of 2,137 sockeye have been counted this year passing over Lower Granite, the last hydro project they must pass on their way toward SawtoothValley.
Counts at Lower Granite have decreased to one or two per day recently. But upriver the pulse is still quite strong. Over the past week biologists have trapped from 22 to 47 per day, including 36 on Thursday.
"Seeing so many of these fish return for the first time in so many decades says to me that all the hard work and collaboration that has gone into saving them is working," said Steve Wright, BPA administrator. "It's now time to build on the success by expanding Idaho's broodstock program to further increase the numbers heading to sea and, ultimately, returning to Idaho as adults. This is proving to be an effective investment in our heritage and our legacy."
The number of sockeye that have returned the last three years is allowing biologists and agencies charged with recovering sockeye, to plan for true recovery by establishing a self-sustaining wild population, according to an IDFG press release. With the recent purchase of the Springfield Hatchery, the goal of producing upwards of one million smolts per year is in the early planning stages. This would mean a five-fold increase in the number of sockeye smolts produced and released for their journey to the ocean.