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Wednesday, October 23, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Landers: Sockeye comeback impressive

Sockeye salmon lived large in 2010, posting record or near-record runs in rivers such as the Columbia and beyond.

Seeing the fish get their legs back, at least temporarily, gives us hope for the possibilities if we continue to improve rather than degrade their access to healthy upstream habitats.

Alaska commercial anglers recorded the 11th-biggest harvest since statehood, largely on the back of sockeyes, which are widely touted as the most flavorful of the five Pacific salmon.

Sockeyes are smaller than king, chum and coho salmon but larger than pinks.

The Fraser River’s sockeye run caught everyone flat-footed as the fish surged into British Columbia this summer. Sockeye runs are notoriously difficult to forecast, and this was a classic example. Around 34 million sockeye salmon returned to the undammed Fraser River this year – the most since 1913 – compared with last year’s 1.7 million – the lowest in more than 50 years.

The huge run caused a dearth of ice and freezer space for storing of the bounty of commercial-caught fish, since facilities had closed during the bad runs of recent years. The surplus flooded into markets, where whole sockeye were selling at a bargain $2 a pound.

Diners are still reaping the rewards of low-priced frozen sockeye in markets around the globe.

The Columbia River scored a record, too, but on the much lower scale one must expect on such a heavily dammed river system. Before barriers were built on the Columbia and Snake rivers, about three million sockeyes came upstream during summer.

Until 2008, the 10-year average for sockeye passage at Bonneville was 58,600 fish.

This year’s run of 386,524 sockeyes up the Columbia was the most since Bonneville Dam started operating and fish counting started in 1938. The previous record run was 335,300 sockeye in 1947.

The majority of those returning sockeye – save for a few thousand headed toward Idaho – were wild fish heading for spawning lakes, some in Washington. But 80-90 percent of them were bound for British Columbia.

Sockeye are distinct among Pacific salmon because juveniles spend a year in a lake before migrating to sea. Kokanee, incidentally, are a generally smaller, nonmigratory sockeye and a darling among inland anglers.

This year’s big sockeye return resulted in fishing seasons in the upper Columbia River above Priest Rapids Dam as well as in Lake Wenatchee. The abundance of fish attracted a new crop of anglers to intercept salmon heading toward the Okanogan and Similkameen rivers in north-central Washington.

More big runs are anticipated in the next few years because of favorable water conditions in lakes, rivers and in the ocean, state and tribal biologists predict.

The rush of sockeyes is an incentive to join Mother Nature’s cyclical generosity by improving water conditions from our end.

We’ve improved the flow regime from Columbia dams to usher young salmon downstream through the reservoir death traps.

Until last year, sockeye spawning was limited to streams feeding into Lake Osoyoos, which straddles the U.S. border north of Oroville, Wash.

British Columbia has added fish passage at McIntyre Dam north of Oliver, B.C. Plans call for adding fish passage upstream at Skaha Dam, which could give the sockeye run a shot at historic spawning habitats and a chance to balloon possibly to a million fish.

Meanwhile, the Snake River sockeye’s bound for Idaho get the nod for inspiration.

About 1,700 sockeyes made the 900-mile journey from the Pacific Ocean up the Columbia, Snake and Salmon rivers to Idaho’s Sawtooth Hatchery or Redfish Lake Creek.

That’s the most sockeye known to have made the migration since 4,361 were counted swimming up Redfish Lake Creek in 1955.

In the 1880s, before dams inhibited passage, about 25,000-35,000 sockeye salmon returned to five Sawtooth Valley lakes.

The species hit rock bottom in 1990, when zero sockeyes made it beyond Lower Granite Dam, the last Snake River Dam before the fish reach Idaho.

The stock was federally listed as endangered in 1991. Between then and 1998, only 16 wild sockeye salmon returned to Idaho.

A captive breeding program at the Eagle Fish Hatchery saved the run from the brink of extinction.

Going from zero fish to 1,700 in 20 years isn’t bad in the anadromous fish business.

But this is no time to ease up the effort. We can’t bank salmon for the lean years that surely will come again.

We have to give each year’s run enough room and water to resemble the runs that survived everything Mother Nature threw at them in the centuries before we arrived.

Contact Rich Landers at 459-5508 or e-mail

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