Letters From the West

New sockeye hatchery could eventually lead to fishing season

Mike Peterson holds up a sockeye salmon pulled from the trap at the Sawtooth Hatchery less than 6 miles south of Stanley. Rocky Barker photo for the Idaho Stateman.

Mike Peterson holds up a sockeye salmon pulled from the trap at the Sawtooth Hatchery less than 6 miles south of Stanley. Rocky Barker photo for the Idaho Statesman.

Idaho fisheries officials say a new hatchery that will be dedicated Friday could eventually mean open fishing for Idaho’s endangered sockeye salmon.

The $13.5 million facility will be capable of producing up to 1 million juvenile sockeye annually for release in the lakes of the Sawtooth Valley, which is the headwaters of the Salmon River.

This additional incubation and rearing space this new hatchery will produce is designed to move the sockeye recovery effort from the conservation phase to a re-colonization phase. These additional fish released into the Salmon River watershed is aimed at increasing numbers of ocean-run adult sockeye for hatchery spawning and release to the habitat for natural spawning.

The sockeye migrates 900 miles and climbs 6,500 feet on its way from Idaho to the Pacific and back. The juvenile fish, known as 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.

In the late 1800s, so many thousands of sockeye returned to Redfish Lake every year 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.

A joint captive-breeding program between the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe, NOAA Fisheries, Idaho Fish and Game, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council and the Bonneville Power Administration 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 1950s, when four dams were built in Washington. Only 185 had returned in 2013 by last week.

A locator map for the Springfield Hatchery in eastern Idaho

A locator map for the Springfield Hatchery in eastern Idaho

Redundant captive broodstock programs operated at hatcheries in Idaho and Washington brought the fish to this stage. Today the sockeye are produced at hatcheries in Idaho, Washington and Oregon. Snake River sockeye rearing and spawning habitat in the Sawtooth Basin is in excellent condition because its protection as a part of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area has limited human impacts.

The current run of sockeye into the Snake River is one of three remaining populations in the Columbia River Basin. The other two populations are in Okanogan and Wenatchee lakes, on tributaries of the upper Columbia River.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West