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Good year for sockeye promises show at Redfish Lake this fall

Enough endangered sockeye salmon are returning to central Idaho this year that some will be allowed to swim the final few hundred yards into Redfish Lake under their own power, something that hasn’t happened in two decades due to dismal spawning runs, the AP reports; the last time was in 1990. Come October this year, a spectacular show is expected at Redfish Lake as up to 1,500 sockeye — the males turn a brilliant red just before spawning — complete their life cycle. “The place was named Redfish Lake for a reason,” said Jeff Heindel, conservation hatcheries supervisor for the Idaho Department of Fish & Game. “It hasn’t had hundreds or thousands of adults spawning there in decades.”

Up to 1,500 sockeye are expected to return to the Stanley region, up from 833 last year; it’s a third of 1955’s count, and a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands that spawned there 100 years ago.  Biologists attribute this year’s spike to good ocean and river conditions, actions by dam operators to help young fish survive and the success of a sockeye hatchery program that was targeted for abandonment just four years ago; in 2006, only three returned. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.


Sockeye to swim into Redfish Lake under own power
By JOHN MILLER, Associated Press Writer

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Enough endangered sockeye salmon are returning to central Idaho this year that some will be allowed to swim the final few hundred yards into Redfish Lake under their own power, something that hasn’t happened in two decades due to dismal spawning runs.

State biologists expect 1,400 to 1,500 sockeye will return to the Stanley region, up from last year’s 833.

With room for 1,000 fish at the state hatchery in Eagle, Idaho, however, 400 to 500 will be counted, sampled for genetics — and then allowed to swim past the trap in Redfish Lake Creek and into the lake.

That last happened in 1990, and this year could begin as early as Sunday, one day after fishing for kokanee ends.

Biologists attribute this year’s spike to good ocean and river conditions, actions by dam operators to help young fish survive and the success of a sockeye hatchery program that was targeted for abandonment just four years ago. Only three of the fish from Redfish Lake made their way back into Idaho in 2006.

“We’ve seen a great response. Whatever we’ve been doing these last 20 years in the program, it’s working,” said Jeff Heindel, conservation hatcheries supervisor for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game in Boise.

Some 2,050 sockeye have already been counted at the Snake River’s Lower Granite Dam, the last of eight dams along their 900-mile journey. Two-thirds of them could survive the trip that starts in the Pacific Ocean and rises 6,500 vertical feet into Idaho’s mountains.

This year’s numbers still pale in comparison to historical sockeye returns before settlement of the West by Europeans altered the landscape with dams, massive commercial fishing, agriculture, mining and logging that all have conspired to disrupt fish migration.

More than 100 years ago, tens of thousands of sockeye returned to Redfish Lake annually, according to limnologists who have studied the shores of central Idaho lakes to analyze nutrients left behind by the fish that once spawned here, then died.

There’s an ongoing court fight: Four years ago, U.S. District Judge James Redden ordered Columbia and Snake River dams to sacrifice power production to help juvenile salmon migrating to the ocean by sending more water downstream; the federal government, he concluded, had failed to protect the fish.

Groups like Idaho Rivers United in Boise want to breach Snake River dams to help sockeye and other endangered salmon and steelhead get up- and downstream.

Heindel cautioned against calling this year’s numbers — only about a third of the 4,361 fish that were counted returning to Redfish Lake in 1955 — a harbinger of a recovered species.

Still, it’s a sign that one of the West’s most endangered salmon, under the right circumstances and with a boost from science, has the natural-born resilience to bounce back from the brink.

“It’s responding as Mother Nature intended it to do,” he said.

In 2006, Idaho officials including then-Gov. Jim Risch objected when a panel of scientists suggested a $2.7 million sockeye hatchery program be dumped — and the fish allowed to go extinct — because of dismal counts.

Since then, biologists have boosted the number of smolts, or young sockeye, that they release for the trip downstream from Idaho to the Pacific Ocean to as many as 180,000.

Come October this year, Heindel expects to see a spectacular show at Redfish Lake as up to 1,500 sockeye — the males turn a brilliant red just before spawning — complete their life cycle.

“The place was named Redfish Lake for a reason,” Heindel said. “It hasn’t had hundreds or thousands of adults spawning there in decades.”

Idaho eventually aims to have a hatchery devoted to sockeye at the American Falls Reservoir, along the Snake River, that would raise about 1 million smolts annually, something that could boost returns five- to tenfold from even this year’s levels.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.


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Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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