Columbia sockeye count misleading for Idaho fish

BOISE — Boosted by court-ordered spill on the lower Columbia River and favorable conditions in the Pacific Ocean, upper Columbia River sockeye salmon are returning to the Okanagan and Wenatchee river basins this summer in numbers not seen in decades.

Idaho’s sockeye, however, are predicted to return at similar rates to recent years. In 2011, 1,118 hatchery and 150 natural sockeye returned to the Sawtooth Valley. In 2010, 1,345 hatchery and 180 natural sockeye returned.

“It’s important to remember that Idaho’s sockeye are a very small percentage of the total number of fish that have been counted at Bonneville Dam,” said Bert Bowler, a retired Idaho Department of Fish and Game fisheries biologist. “The fact is that our sockeye are still in trouble, and these lower Columbia numbers don’t necessarily show that.”

On their journeys home, Idaho sockeye pass the first four dams on the Columbia River, then turn up the Snake River and pass four more dams before swimming into the remaining miles of free-flowing rivers on their way to the Sawtooth Valley. Idaho’s sockeye were listed as endangered in 1991, and they have been on a captive broodstock life support system ever since. Upper Columbia sockeye, on the other hand, are not listed under the Endangered Species Act. 

“Fish and Game biologists have worked wonders in preventing extinction of Idaho’s sockeye,” said IRU Assistant Policy Director Greg Stahl. “But the 150 to 180 natural origin fish that returned each of the past couple years aren’t anywhere close to enough to recover the species and remove them from Endangered Species Act listing. 

“By all indications, this year’s return should be similar to the past couple of years, and the primary obstacle to recovery remains the same. Removing the four dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington state will be required to put Idaho’s sockeye on the path to sustained recovery.”

Also of note, early predictions of spring/summer chinook returns proved about a third too high this year. About 314,200 chinook were forecasted to return to the main-stem Columbia River. The final tally was about 203,000.