The first two sockeye salmon of the season completed the marathon journey from the Pacific Ocean, up the Columbia and Snake rivers to Little Redfish Lake in Idaho’s Stanley Basin on July 23. More to come.
The journey covers than 900 miles and 6,500 vertical feet to the high mountain valley where they were born.
The two four-year-old female fish, captured in an Idaho Department of Fish and Game trap, are the first of what is expected to be the largest sockeye return in three decades.
Snake River sockeye are the most imperiled salmon run in the Columbia River basin. They were listed as an endangered species in 1990 and have spent the past 19 years teetering on the brink of extinction. Though still in trouble, the fish appear to be making a modest rebound.
For the second consecutive year, the Columbia River sockeye run has surged well above the 10-year average. Last year more than 217,000 sockeye were counted passing Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. It was the highest sockeye return since 1955, when the return hit 237,748.
So far this year, 177,800 sockeye have been counted at Bonneville Dam.
Only a tiny portion of those fish turn off at the mouth of the Snake River and steam upriver toward the Stanley Basin. Through last week, more than 1,200 sockeye had been counted at Lower Granite Dam on the Snake near Lewiston. It is the highest sockeye count at the dam since it was built in 1975.
But it is only the halfway point of the journey for Snake River sockeye. The sea-run fish that turn bright red during spawning are headed for Redfish, Alturas and Petitt lakes in the Stanley Basin.
“The hardest part of the journey is yet to start,” said Travis Brown of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s Eagle Fish Hatchery, where many sockeye are taken after being trapped. “They start hitting the altitude and (return rates) are based on water temperatures and good flows. Right now we are looking good.”
Brown said as many as 800 sockeye could return to the basin this year. That is a huge jump from just a few years ago, when returns to the basin averaged in the single digits. None returned in 1990.
Many of the returning sockeye will be released into the lakes to spawn. Others will be taken to hatcheries to be incorporated in the state’s captive breeding program.