The final count is nearly in, with this year’s sockeye salmon return to central Idaho’s Sawtooth Valley standing at 1,100 through Wednesday.
That’s already the second highest total in recent times.
The returning spawners are mostly the product of the Snake River Sockeye Salmon Captive Broodstock Program headed by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. A total of 542 sockeye have been trapped thus far at Redfish Lake Creek and another 557 have been captured and counted at a trap on the Salmon River near Sawtooth Fish Hatchery near Stanley. One was trapped near Hells Canyon Dam on the lower Snake River.
The program was begun early in 1991. The Snake River stock at that point hovered near extinction and was later that year listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
Between 1991 and 1998, only 16 wild sockeye returned to Idaho. Between 1999 – which was the year the first returns from the captive broodstock program arrived -- and 2007, 355 hatchery produced adult sockeye salmon returned to the Sawtooth Valley. Over the previous 14 years, 77 natural-origin sockeye returned.
The last four years have resulted in markedly improved returns, including 650 in 2008, 833 in 2009, a modern-day record of 1,355 in 2010 and now 1,100. There had been no return likely to have exceeded 1,000 since the mid-1950s.
The 2011 return so far has included 150 “natural origin” sockeye that are the product of anadromous salmon returned to Redfish Lake and adult fish that were hatchery raised and released into the lake, residual sockeye that spent their entire life in freshwater or eggs that were fertilized in the hatchery and outplanted in nearby Alturas or Pettit lakes.
The vast majority of the returning fish were smolts raised at either Oxbow Hatchery near Cascade Locks, Ore., or Sawtooth Hatchery in central Idaho.
The 2011 run is near, if not at, its end. The first fish was trapped in the Idaho high country on Aug. 2 and the high count this year was 61 fish trapped on Aug. 17. The first zero trap count since Aug. 2 was recorded Sunday and the second was Tuesday. Three sockeye were trapped in Redfish Lake Creek Wednesday, sampled for genetics and released to continue their spawning journey toward the lake.
The IDFG will continue to operate trap on Redfish Lake Creek through mid-October.
The fish that grew to adulthood in the Pacific Ocean swim about 900 miles up the Columbia, Snake and Salmon rivers in order to spawn. Most are allowed to spawn naturally; some are spawned in the hatchery to restock the captive broodstock program.
The conversion rate – the number of fish that survived the 400-mile trip from Lower Granite Dam to the valley – this year is slightly over 73 percent as compared to a program average of 68 percent. The conversion rate in 2010 was 60 percent. The sockeye count at Lower Granite, which is on the lower Snake in southeast Washington, was 2,001.