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Eye On Boise

First sockeye returns to Idaho, just one so far…

Warm water in the Columbia River has killed thousands of migrating sockeye, but through July 27, 368 were counted at Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River, which is the last dam the fish cross before reaching Idaho. (Idaho Fish & Game / Roger Phillips)
Warm water in the Columbia River has killed thousands of migrating sockeye, but through July 27, 368 were counted at Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River, which is the last dam the fish cross before reaching Idaho. (Idaho Fish & Game / Roger Phillips)

The first sockeye salmon of the season has returned to the Sawtooth Basin near Stanley, Idaho Fish & Game reports, arriving yesterday evening. Though it’s the only one so far, Idaho Fish & Game spokesman Roger Phillips says they’re not anticipating another “Lonesome Larry” situation, like the year that just one male sockeye – dubbed “Lonesome Larry” – survived the 900-mile, obstacle-laden swim from the mouth of the Columbia River to Redfish Lake in Idaho back in 1992. “Just because of the numbers that have gone over the dam and the previous conversion rates, even though they’re expected to be lower, I think that there’s still probably going to be an adequate number of fish,” said Phillips.

Phillips, incidentally, was the Idaho Statesman’s outdoors writer for the past 15 years; he just left that post on July 2, and started his new job as a public information specialist for Idaho Fish & Game eight days ago. “I had an opportunity to go to work here; I’d been in newspapers for 23 years, and I decided like many others that I’d like to try something different,” he said. “I think I’m uniquely qualified to work at Fish & Game because I’ve covered so many of the issues in depth over the years.” That’s demonstrated in his news release on the sockeye return; you can read it here. It stretches for four pages, and includes lots of detail on the current situation for sockeye salmon and the overall issues facing the fish as they migrate back to Idaho in an unusually hot, dry year.

“Tens of thousands of sockeye have died in the Columbia River,” Phillips writes. “Many other sockeye remaining in the rivers face an uncertain future.” Mike Peterson, F&G’s senior sockeye research biologist, said, “It’s a tough year for all anadromous fish, including sockeye.” Through yesterday, 368 sockeye were counted at Lower Granite Dam; biologists fear that only a fraction of those will make it to the Sawtooth Basin, though the first fish’s arrival yesterday was a good sign.

“Despite a challenging summer, Idaho’s sockeye population has dramatically improved over the last decade, and Fish and Game’s sockeye program is designed to adapt to changing conditions,” Phillips writes. “Biologists are currently in a wait-and-see mode for the fish remaining in the rivers,” while others have been trapped and trucked past stretches of warm waters. “I don’t know what to expect because this is a year we’ve never seen before,” Peterson said. “We’re going to learn the thermal tolerances of these fish.” Peterson is hoping about 30 percent of the sockeye counted at Lower Granite will make the full trip; that’d be roughly 110, the smallest return since 2007. Annual sockeye returns since 2008 have averaged 837 fish, including 1,516 in 2014, the largest return since 1955.



Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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