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Monday, October 19, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Record return of sockeye

Ocean conditions, recovery efforts boost numbers

From Staff And Wire Reports The Spokesman-Review

Sockeye salmon are taking a run at a revival in the Columbia River.

The troubled sockeye salmon runs to the Columbia and Snake rivers are returning in post-dams record numbers this month as they move upstream to spawn.

In Idaho, the species appears to be turning a corner.

The 30,690 sockeye counted at Bonneville Dam on June 24 was the highest daily count since record-keeping began in 1938, usurping the record of 27,112 fish set in 1955.

The forecast for overall run size to the mouth of the Columbia was updated on Wednesday to a record 375,000 fish, up from a preseason forecast of 125,000 and smashing the previous high of 335,300 counted in 1947.

The numbers were reported Wednesday by Cindy LaFleur, Washington Fish and Wildlife Department fisheries manager in Vancouver.

Nearly 300,000 sockeye have been counted so far over Bonneville, the first dam the fish reach as they head from the ocean up the Columbia. That’s an increase of more than 60 percent from the same date last year.

Starting today, anglers will be allowed to catch and keep sockeye salmon in the main-stem Columbia River above Priest Rapids Dam and in the Okanogan and Similkameen rivers. The agency announced the season recently after this year’s big run of sockeyes was confirmed.

A Lake Wenatchee sockeye season is likely later this summer.

No one is more enthused about the trend than fish biologists in Idaho.

The return of Snake River sockeye salmon, the most endangered salmon species in the Columbia River Basin, has been trending sharply upward.

Jeff Heindel, Idaho Department of Fish and Game conservation hatcheries supervisor in Boise, said he expects returns of 500 to 1,000 fish moving over Lower Granite Dam to be the norm over the next few years. The state has been producing and releasing about 200,000 sockeye smolts annually.

Disastrous returns are only a few years in the past. Snake River sockeye were listed as endangered in 1993. Only 16 sockeye returned to their spawning grounds in the shadow of the Sawtooth Mountains throughout the 1990s.

As late as 2003, only 14 sockeye were counted passing Lower Granite and just three made it to the Stanley Basin.

But the runs started climbing as ocean conditions improved and Idaho’s efforts to recover the run using hatcheries expanded. In 2008, about 650 returned to their spawning grounds, and that jumped to 833 last year.

Idaho and the Bonneville Power Administration are close to securing a sockeye hatchery at Springfield, Idaho, near American Falls Reservoir. It will boost the production of the endangered fish to about 1 million smolts a year. Releases of that magnitude could result in annual adult returns of 5,000 to 10,000 sockeye to Idaho, Heindel said.

“We are at the point we are ready to jump out of the museum work, and rather than preventing the extinction of this species, we are really ready to take the next step in the recovery of these fish to Idaho,” he said.

Most of those fish currently heading up the Columbia River are bound for the Okanogan River in Washington. But a small portion are headed for the Snake River.

This summer, biologists from Idaho will capture a few sockeye at Lower Granite Dam and truck them to a fish hatchery at Eagle. Heindel said the state wants to have an emergency adult migration plan in place for years with low and warm water conditions.

Once sockeye pass Granite, they still have 400 river miles to travel before reaching spawning grounds. In low water years, with Salmon River temperatures in the low 70s, the journey can be arduous, and many fish never make it.

Staff writer Rich Landers and Lewiston Morning Tribune writer Eric Barker contributed to this story.
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