Sockeye return promising but far from recovery

STANLEY -- The first sockeye salmon of 2009 arrived at Redfish Lake near Stanley today, completing their inspiring journey of more than 900 miles and 6,500 vertical feet to the high mountain valley where they were born.

Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologists trapped two fish today, said Dan Baker, manager at the department's Eagle Hatchery where the state sockeye program is based.

With more than 1,100 sockeye having passed Lower Granite Dam as of July 20, there is reason to be hopeful that we might see hundreds of these magnificent endangered fish complete their journey home this year. Given that just four fish made it back to Redfish Lake in 2007 (and only three in 2006), these numbers are encouraging. "But before we declare victory for Snake River sockeye and move on, a little perspective is in order," said Bill Sedivy, executive director at Idaho Rivers United. 

"A few improved years of sockeye returns doesnt mean much after decades of mostly dismal counts," Sedivy said. "Several hundred persistent fish have managed to beat steep odds and complete their miraculous journey in the past couple of years, but such a number pales in comparison to the tens of thousands that used to return before dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers decimated their migration corridor."

A century ago, as many as 40,000 sockeye made it back to this picturesque alpine lake, turning its waters red. Notwithstanding last years encouraging return of nearly 600 sockeye to Redfish Lake, prospects have been so bleak that most fish biologists in the region declared them functionally extinct. Few held hope that the lake would ever see a self-sustaining population again.

"But sockeye are both surprising and resilient," Sedivy said. "With help from Mother Nature, a federal court decision implementing improved migration conditions and stepped-up hatchery production, sockeye salmon are being given a fighting chance."

Bert Bowler, a retired Idaho Department of Fish and Game fisheries biologist, reiterated that improved ocean conditions, court-ordered migration improvements for out-migrating salmon and hatchery production are combining to produced improved sockeye salmon returns.

"This is promising that the risk of sockeye going extinct is lessening," Bowler said. "But this certainly doesn't discount the dams (on the lower Snake River) at all. The dams are still the bad boys, and the only way youre going to get a chance to recover these fish is to remove those bad boys on the lower Snake. Youre simply never going to get there from here without getting rid of those dams."

Its important, Bowler pointed out, not to confuse a couple improved years of returns with true recovery of a species that has been on the federal Endangered Species List since 1991. The truth is that Snake River sockeye are still a long way from recovery, and as Snake River sockeye continue their valiant struggle to survive, federal agencies continue to strip away even the most basic of protections.

The federal government's current salmon plan, which was finalized in 2008, is now under review by the Obama administration and in ongoing litigation in federal court by fishing and conservation groups. The Bush-era plan rolls back and even eliminates many of the measures that have resulted in this years higher returns. 

Further, the benchmark for what constitutes recovery of a species is far higher than current returns. According to NOAA Fisheries, eight consecutive years of sustained returns of at least 1,500 fish would be necessary to get these fish out of the Intensive Care Unit and into the recovery room.

The Northwest Power and Conservation Council's Independent Scientific Advisory Board concluded in 2006 that the Snake River sockeye captive breeding program, which is essentially the equivalent of a life-support system for these fish, was unlikely to ever result in the recovery of this species unless other downstream impacts were addressed. Specifically, scientists say that the best and perhaps only way to recovery endangered Snake River salmon runs is to remove four outdated and costly dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington. With these dams in place, along with rollbacks of current salmon protections, the promising sockeye returns of late may be squandered.

"Theres still time to ensure that the encouraging sockeye returns of the last few years are not squandered," said Tom Stuart, an avid angler and resident of Boise and Stanley. "We encourage the Obama administration to lead the way by establishing a forum that brings together regional stakeholders to create a real recovery blueprint that will restore the Columbia Basins wild salmon and steelhead runs to vibrant, self-sustaining levels."