Letters from the West

Sockeye draft recovery plan shows just how far away success is

A sockeye salmon released in the creek leading to Redfish Lake in 2011.
A sockeye salmon released in the creek leading to Redfish Lake in 2011. Shawn Raecke

NOAA Fisheries has proposed a recovery goal for Idaho Snake River sockeye salmon of 2,500 natural origin spawners in the lakes of the Sawtooth Valley.

The goal was revealed in a recovery plan put out for public comment Monday by the agency with the support of its partners: the Shoshone Bannock Tribes, the Idaho Office of Species Conservation, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, and the Idaho members of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, the Sawtooth National Forest and the Bonneville Power Administration. The plan calls for an average population over 10 years of 1,000 naturally spawning sockeye in Redfish and Alturas lakes. Another 500 would be required in either Petit, Stanley or Yellow Belly lakes.

For perspective, the remarkable captive breeding program that prevented the extinction of the Snake River sockeye — the southernmost sockeye population in the world — has only returned a high of 179 naturally spawning sockeye in 2010 and only 78 last year. So unless something major happens on the migration route, like the breaching of four Snake River dams, the expanded hatchery supplementation and sockeye reintroduction program is going to take a long time to reach recovery, if ever.

“We know we have a long way to go, and this draft plan is an important road map to organize our collective efforts,” said Will Stelle, regional administrator of NOAA Fisheries.

The plan outlines strategies and actions to recover the endangered species best known for swimming 900 miles up the Columbia, Snake and Salmon rivers and climbing 6,500 feet to spawn in Redfish Lake in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. From 1985 to 1990, only 58 wild sockeye returned to Idaho. After Lonesome Larry, the last fully wild sockeye, arrived at Redfish in 1992, Idaho Fish and Game began its captive broodstock program with its partners. So far this year, more than 1,800 sockeye adults have passed Lower Granite Dam on their way to spawn.

Last year a new sockeye hatchery in Springfield, Idaho, came online with the capacity to dramatically expand releases of juvenile sockeye, which is expected to further increase returns.

The recovery plan calls for continuing the partnerships among NOAA Fisheries, Idaho Fish and Game, the Shoshone Bannock Tribe, the Sawtooth National Forest and Bonneville Power Administration, who all developed the proposed recovery plan. “We share a common vision with our state and tribal partners to establish healthy sockeye populations in the wild that are abundant, productive and diverse and that no longer need ESA protections,” said Stelle.

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