Good news for Idaho's most endangered fish and all the people who are working hard to bring them back from the brink of extinction.
The 1,408 sockeye count tops the 1,355 that returned to Idaho in 2010. 2011 was also at that time the second-largest, which makes three of the last four years record or near-record returns dating back to 1975 when the final Snake River Dam was completed and fish counting began there.
The runs not over. Through Thursday, 2,765 sockeye had crossed Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River, but not all those fish typically survive the trip to the headwaters of the Salmon River and the lakes where the fish spawn, including its namesake, Redfish Lake.
Only 17 fish crossed the dam in September so far, and the largest single day this month was six sockeye on Sept. 4, so the run is winding down.
This year's record return is partially due to the 2010 spawners that produced the largest class of lake-born smolts to migrate to the Pacific Ocean since populations of the endangered stocks plummeted in the 1970s.
Idaho's sockeye are the southern-most population in the world and also have the longest migration. The fish swim about 900 miles up the Columbia, Snake and Salmon rivers to about 6,500-feet elevation in the Stanley Basin. Roughly 400 river miles remain after they cross Lower Granite Dam.
Redfish Lake sockeye salmon were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in November 1991 — the first Idaho salmon species to be listed — and remain Idaho's most endangered fish because of the tiny population.
Between 1991 and 1998, only 16 wild sockeye salmon returned to Idaho. All of these adults were spawned in a captive breeding program at the Eagle Fish Hatchery.
The hatchery program appears to be boosting sockeye numbers.