Only 157 endangered Snake River sockeye salmon returned to the Sawtooth Valley this year — and not one of them came from a $14 million hatchery built to help their recovery.
The Springfield Hatchery opened in eastern Idaho in 2013, paid for by the Bonneville Power Administration — a federal agency that markets power from dams in the Northwest and whose ratepayers provide a major source of funding for regional salmon recovery. It was designed to add up to 1 million more sockeye that could be released into Redfish Lake Creek near Stanley.
But Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologists discovered the young salmon smolts have been dying after their release because of stress.
“What we have learned is that water chemistry appears to be a significant contributor to reduced survival,” Jesse Trushenski, a fish health expert with the department, said when the problem was announced at a meeting Tuesday.
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The water in the Springfield Hatchery has an unusually high level of calcium carbonate, making it extremely “hard” while Redfish Lake Creek’s water is unusually “soft,” said Paul Kline, Fish and Game assistant chief of fisheries. When the smolts were released into the creek, they suffered a physiological shock.
It has taken Fish and Game three years to solve the mystery of the low survival numbers of Springfield-raised sockeye.
Biologists noticed reduced survival from the Springfield fish in 2015, when the first sockeye raised there were placed into the creek to begin their long journey to the Pacific Ocean. But overall, a similar number of ocean-bound Idaho sockeye survived between Lower Granite Dam — the first the fish encounter on the Snake River — and Bonneville Dam, compared to Columbia River sockeye populations.
In 2016, with good downstream flows, only 13 percent of Snake River sockeye survived to Bonneville. The usual number of Columbia sockeye survived — in the range of 50 percent, Kline said.
It was only this spring, when biologists saw thousands of another 230,000 Springfield sockeye die immediately upon release into the creek, that the chemistry issue was discovered. They found high stress hormones in the dead and dying salmon, caused by going from the very hard water to the very soft water.
Kevin Lewis, executive director of Idaho Rivers United, was skeptical when the BPA decided to spend millions on the hatchery. He said breaching the four dams on the lower Snake River in Washington ultimately is the most cost-effective way to recover sockeye.
He questions why biologists for Fish and Game and the other agencies involved didn’t consider water hardness an issue in the beginning.
”We the taxpayers are paying the freight for all this,” Lewis said.
The agency had water quality experts analyze the water when the hatchery was built, Kline said. No red flags came up. The sockeye raised in other hatcheries, including the Eagle and Sawtooth hatcheries, had none of the same problems.
”What we didn’t know was the extremely soft water (in Redfish Lake Creek) was going to be a problem,” Kline said.
Virgil Moore, director of Idaho Fish and Game, is also a fish biologist. “It’s not unusual to have startup problems with hatcheries because they are all unique,” he said.
What can Fish and Game do at this point?
The Sawtooth Hatchery near Stanley is close to Redfish Lake Creek. It uses water from the Salmon River that has a hardness between the creek’s and that found at Springfield. Experiments at the Eagle Hatchery show that smolts taken there first to acclimate can be released into the creek without harm, Kline said.
Fish and Game has reduced its goal for raising Springfield sockeye to 700,000 smolts in 2019. It has 500,000 pre-smolts it plans to release in 2018. Of those, 450,000 will be split between two possible workarounds: acclimation in the Sawtooth Hatchery, and direct release into the Salmon River.
Another 50,000 will be placed into Redfish Lake Creek as a control, Kline said.
Just the latest sockeye setback
Snake River sockeye, the southernmost population of sockeye salmon in the world, nearly vanished in the 1990s. In 1992, only one returned to the Sawtooth Valley: Idaho’s famed Lonesome Larry. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game placed him into a captive breeding program, along with 15 other sockeye that held the valuable genetic code allowing them to travel 900 miles and climb to 6,500 feet above sea level.
The last truly wild sockeye salmon returned to Idaho in 1998. Fish and Game kept up its efforts, and in 2010 declared its project was successful enough to convert from a genetic conservation program to a recovery program. That year, 1,355 sockeye returned to Idaho, including 180 from the breeding program that spawned in the wild.
In 2014, a full 1,516 sockeye reached Idaho lakes and streams — a record since four key dams were built along the Snake River in the 1960s and ’70s, contributing to altered fish runs.
In 2015, the first year Springfield came online, hot temperatures in reservoirs along the Columbia and Snake killed most of the 4,000 Snake River sockeye counted at Bonneville Dam. Just 56 Idaho sockeye made the trip back to the Sawtooth Valley on their own. Another 35 were trucked to Fish and Game’s Eagle hatchery.
The poor returns overall for Snake River salmon and steelhead show that federal dam managers and BPA are using the wrong approach, said Idaho River United’s Lewis.
“BPA is crying about spending so much money on fish and wildlife for dam mitigation, so now we’ve spent $16 billion on salmon recovery and Idaho’s wild fish have little to show for it,” he said.
BPA spokesman David Wilson said BPA and its partners have made “tremendous progress” with fish recovery in the Pacific Northwest through the use of conservation hatcheries.
“While it’s unfortunate that unforeseen issues have occurred, we are confident that IDFG and other regional partners will identify a solution and that over time, the current Snake River sockeye challenges will be overcome,” Wilson said.
Rick Williams is a fisheries biologist from Eagle who has questioned the salmon program’s reliance on hatcheries. He said it was unfair to expect Fish and Game to have known about the water hardness issue before the hatchery was built.
“Unanticipated consequences is always a part of salmon management when we take them out of their natural environment,” Williams said.
CORRECTION: Kevin Lewis spoke of $16 billion spent on salmon recovery, not a lesser sum.