Idaho sockeye one of 'Ten American Species Our Children May Never See'

Lonesome Larry, the lone Idaho sockeye that returned to Idaho 1992, has been mounted and hangs on the wall at the MK Nature Center in Boise. Then as now, sockeye salmon are in trouble, and dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers are primarily to blame (Photo by Greg Stahl)

A report released today by the national Endangered Species Coalition highlights Idaho’s iconic sockeye salmon as one of 10 species in danger of extinction.

The report, “Vanishing: Ten American Species Our Children May Never See,” highlights Idaho sockeye as “the most endangered salmon in the world” and also puts the spotlight on endangered species like monarch butterflies, whitebark pine trees, polar bears and others. (View the whole list at endangered.org.)

Though they’re far from recovered, Idaho’s sockeye salmon enjoyed a healthy bump this year with more than 1,400 returning adults. Of those, however, only 450 or so were of natural origin (non-hatchery fish).

“The hatchery-based ICU rescue effort of sockeye salmon is an exceptional effort,” said IRU Board Member Tom Stuart. “While the work to prevent extinction has been successful so far, it’s important to point out how far away from recovery the species still is.”

In order to be removed from the list of endangered species, 2,500 or more natural-origin adult sockeye must return to central Idaho for eight consecutive years. This year’s tally of 454 natural sockeye is a long way from that mark.

“To label this year’s return as a ‘record’ is akin to cheering for a sports team that just lost a game by 30 points instead of the usual 50, as it has for 40 years and counting,” said IRU Salmon Program Manager Greg Stahl. “We applaud the sockeye rescue effort , but recovery of this species won’t be possible with dams in place on the lower Snake River.”

Beyond the hatchery rescue effort, at least two factors have been critically important to this year’s sockeye returns: spill at Columbia and Snake river dams and help from Mother Nature.

After 2006, all Snake and Columbia river salmon runs, including Snake River sockeye, benefitted from court-ordered spill through Snake and Columbia river reservoirs and dams during the salmon migration. Salmon survival benefits system-wide were immediate and significant. This year’s adult returns reflect cumulative effects. Adults returning in 2014 are the second consecutive generation to enjoy the benefits of court-ordered spill, with two lifecycles now passed since then.

“How shameful and disappointing it is to see proposals from federal agencies and others to reduce spill rather than test expanded spill and build further on this basin-wide progress,” Stuart said.

Second, during the same time period, nature has been very kind to Snake River sockeye and all other Columbia basin salmon runs. 

“We’ve had relatively good winter snowpacks and healthy spring freshets, further improving the safer passage provided by spill,” Stuart said. “Also, arriving in the ocean, salmon have encountered an unusually rich food web in cool waters. That may be changing, with a cyclic rise in ocean temperatures recently detected. We cannot expect a salmon-friendly ocean each year and will need stronger freshwater salmon policies and actions.”

When the Snake River sockeye captive broodstock program began in 1991 it was envisioned as a one or two-generation effort to jumpstart the population while lethal downriver dams could be addressed in basin-wide biological opinions. Those government documents, however, have not yet delivered sufficient lifecycle improvements for Snake River sockeye.

In recent decades, survival rates have always fallen far below minimum scientific standards. Without a sufficient improvement in downriver survival, Idaho Fish and Game’s laudable hatchery rescue and the millions of dollar spent for it may be futile.

“With due credit to Idaho Fish and Game and others, the glimmer of hope that comes for Snake River sockeye with 2014 adult returns would not have occurred without the positive actions of court-ordered spill and the assistance of Mother Nature,” Stuart said. “We still have a long way to go.”