The Snake River sockeye salmon return this year to central Idaho pales, in a relative sense, to the last four years’ runs.
But at 429 and counting at the lower Snake River’s Lower Granite Dam, the number of spawners is still the fifth best since 1977 for a beleaguered stock that came very close to winking out in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Snake River sockeye were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1991 as endangered.
Between 1991 and 1998, only 16 wild sockeye salmon spawners returned to Idaho. All were incorporated into a captive breeding program established the Idaho Department of Fish and Game in May 1991 and were spawned at the Eagle Fish Hatchery near Boise.
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 Idaho sockeye salmon. The program also produces eggs and fish to reintroduce to the habitat to increase population numbers. The IDFG is working with the Bonneville Power Administration, which funds much of the program, to increase the number of smolts the program releases.
With a gradual buildup in the number of hatchery produced “smolts” released into central Idaho waters, adult returns had begun to perk up in recent years. Lower Granite annual counts rose to 909 in 2008, 1,215 in 2009, 2,201 in 2010 and 1,502 in 2011. All four counts from 2008-2011 were higher than any annual tally at Lower Granite since the dam was built in 1975. The dam is the eighth hydro project the fish must pass on their way back to central Idaho.
This year’s count is now the seventh highest on that record, also trailing a total of 458 in 1977 and 531 in 1976.
This year’s daily high count at Lower Granite was 32 sockeye on July 10. The run is tailing off with only four fish counted Wednesday.
Estimates are that from 25,000 to 35,000 sockeye historically returned annually to the Stanley Basin, which is about 900 river miles the Columbia, Snake and Salmon rivers. The sockeye reared in five Sawtooth Valley lakes -- Alturas, Pettit, Redfish, Stanley and Yellowbelly – at an elevation of 6,500 feet.
In the 1880s, observers reported lakes and streams in the Stanley Basin teeming with redfish. There was talk of building a cannery at Redfish Lake.
Construction of the Sunbeam Dam in 1913 blocked upstream fish passage. The dam was partially destroyed in 1934 reopening the upper Salmon River, but no one tried to restore the salmon runs. The source of the present sockeye in Redfish Lake is uncertain, according to the IDFG
So far this year, through Wednesday, a total of nine sockeye have made it the final 400 miles from Lower Granite up to the Stanley Basin. The first arrived July 25.
Adults returning to the basin are trapped at two locations -- Redfish Lake Creek and the Sawtooth Hatchery. A portion of the adults captured will be retained and spawned with hatchery reared adults at the Eagle Fish Hatchery. The balance of fish will be released in Redfish Lake in early September and allowed to spawn naturally.
So far four of the returned fish are identified as being of natural origin – produced by resident fish, by anadromous fish that swam to the ocean and returned to spawn in the lake, or from the outplant of fertilized eggs. Hatchery fish released as smolts are marked with clips and/or identifying tags.
The upper Columbia River region this year is experiencing a record return of sockeye salmon this year. The sockeye count through Wednesday at Bonneville dam had risen to 515,530. Bonneville on the lower Columbia is the first dam the salmon encounter on their way upstream. The vast majority of the fish are naturally produced fish that call the Okanogan River basin home. The river flows south out of British Columbia into north-central Washington and then empties into the Columbia.
The previous record-high count was 386,525 in 2010. Prior to that, the high count dating back to 1938 at Bonneville had been 237,000, according to data compiled by the Fish Passage Center.
The fish are making their way upstream too. A record total of 305,948 sockeye had been counted through July 27 at the Douglas County Public Utility’s Wells Dam, the last of nine mainstem Columbia hydro projects the sockeye pass before turning into the Okanogan River. The previous high annual count was 291,000 in 2010.
The record at Wells will undoubtedly grow. A total of 6,375 sockeye passed the dam July 27. Counts at Wells have been recorded since 1977.
For more information see CBB, July 27, 2012, “Sockeye Bounty Shared; New Tools Improve Fish, Water Management Strategies For Upper Columbia Stocks” http://www.cbbulletin.com/421841.aspx