Idaho fisheries officials say the $13.5 million hatchery south of Blackfoot in eastern Idaho to be dedicated Friday will be capable of producing up to 1 million juvenile sockeye annually for release into the lakes of the Sawtooth Valley, the headwaters of the Salmon River.
If everything goes right, Fish and Game could release the sockeye juveniles or smolts into the Sawtooth Valley by 2015, said Jeff Heindel, hatchery production coordinator for Fish and Game.
F&G hopes to ramp up to 1 million smolt by 2017. That could translate into a return of 10,000 adult sockeye as early as 2019, he said.
"This gets us on a road to recovery," Heindel said.
The increased adult returns allow biologists to maximize the number of sockeye they can release into Redfish and the other four lakes in the Stanley area to assist the naturally spawning populations.
The additional incubation and rearing space at the new hatchery will produce juveniles to be released each spring. Two years later, when the adults return, a portion of those will be allowed to spawn naturally or be transplanted to Alturus, Pettit and eventually Yellowbelly and Stanley lakes to spawn.
But if biologists plant too many hatchery fish in the lakes, it could set back the dramatically successful program to preserve the genetic diversity of the naturally spawning Snake River sockeye population. So, if 10,000 fish eventually return, fishermen might one day be allowed to catch up to 5,000 "surplus" fish in Sawtooth lakes and rivers.
"We know that fish that are released to the lake naturally, their offspring survive at a much higher rate than those raised in a hatchery," Heindel said.
That surplus could be the basis for a fishing season if the fish can be down-listed from endangered to threatened, which allows limited fishing by sportsmen and Indian tribes. The tribes, especially the Shoshone-Bannock tribes that petitioned the federal government to list the sockeye in 1990, would share the harvest.
Nez Perce tribal leaders also want Snake River sockeye replanted into Warm Lake near Cascade and Wallowa Lake in northeast Oregon, where they were extirpated long ago.
The sockeye migrates 900 miles and 6,500 feet of elevation between Idaho and the Pacific. The smolts face a hazardous journey down the Salmon and into the Snake River even before they get to the eight dams on the Lower Snake and Columbia rivers. Those dams add to their peril.
New hatcheries aren't the best way to help the fish, many salmon advocates argue.
"If you get rid of those dams, you would increase adult survival and get a greater benefit for the natural fish," said Greg Stahl, a spokesman for Idaho Rivers United.
In the late 1800s, so many thousands of sockeye returned annually to Redfish Lake - which takes its name from the color of the sockeye - that a cannery was proposed. But by 1991, the sockeye was listed as an endangered species. The following year, just one - dubbed Lonesome Larry - returned to Redfish Lake.
Today, sockeye are raised at hatcheries in Idaho, Oregon and Washington. The joint captive-breeding program between the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe, NOAA Fisheries, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, the Bonneville Power Administration and Idaho Fish and Game has brought the salmon back from the brink of extinction. Although just 243 sockeye returned to the Sawtooth Valley in 2012, more than 650 sockeye had returned annually to the Sawtooth Valley since 2008.
That included 1,355 in 2010, the most since the four Snake River dams were built in Washington in the 1950s. This year the run remains down; just 185 had returned by last week with about a month of migration left.
"The fish are clearly still on the ropes," Stahl said.
Heindel acknowledged that sockeye face issues getting past the eight dams below Idaho. But he said improvements at the dams and actions such as spilling more water over dams to improve migration conditions are helping. Management of the river and the dams remain the focus of continuing litigation pitting Oregon, sportsmen, the Nez Perce tribe and environmental groups against the federal government, the states of Washington, Idaho and Montana and others.
GOOD HABITAT FOR RESTORED STOCKS
Habitat for rearing and spawning Snake River sockeye in the Sawtooth Basin is in excellent condition because being part of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area has limited the impacts from human activities and development.
"In the past, we've essentially been a gene bank for the species," Heindel said. "We've retained the genetic diversity that was present in Redfish Lake when we brought this population into captivity."
The run of sockeye into the Snake River is one of three remaining sockeye populations in the Columbia River Basin. The other two are in Okanogan and Wenatchee lakes, on tributaries of the upper Columbia River.
Heindel said the new hatchery takes the sockeye program to a new level, but doesn't - and can't - replace naturally spawning fish.
"I want them out of a hatchery as much as anyone," he said.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484