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Ecology and salmon related articles

The 2010s Have Been Good
for Sockeye, Fall Chinook

by Roger Phillips
Idaho Statesman, September 18, 2014

Both runs have seen giant leaps in annual returns since 2010

Sockeye runs have dramatically improved and probably have turned the corner from the single-digit returns of the past. Suddenly, Lonesome Larry - the lone sockeye that returned in 1992 - seems so long ago.

So what to call his thousands of descendents? Lots O' Larrys?

The 2014 sockeye run of 1,420 fish has topped the 2010 record of 1,355, and a few stragglers are still showing up.

Idaho Fish and Game's Eagle Hatchery Manager Dan Baker expects the final tally this year will be around 1,450 fish.

That's the largest run since counting began at Lower Granite Dam in 1975.

Times have been good for Idaho's sockeye in recent years, and fall chinook have also come on strong.

So what gives?

The simple answer is hatcheries, but there's more. River systems have been better managed for salmon and steelhead, and everyone involved should take pride in the success.

Sockeye and fall chinook runs were pitifully low in the 1990s. They were jump-started by hatcheries and nurtured with a mix of hatchery fish and "natural" fish, which are basically the offspring of hatchery fish allowed to naturally spawn.

For sockeye, that would be in places like Redfish Lake, which was named after the colorful fish that returned by the thousands before the Columbia and Snake river dams were built.

This year's sockeye run is a far cry from Larry's generation when:

Fast forward to 2008, and:

This year's record return is partially due to the 2010 spawners that produced a large group of smolts, which returned this year.

Idaho's current sockeye run is the product of hatcheries and fish that are allowed to naturally spawn in lakes, but all of them are descendents of hatchery fish.

But the main reason for the upward trend is that Idaho Fish and Game and others have produced more fish, Baker said.

Sockeye are unique because F&G and its partners rely on fish that have returned from the ocean and fish raised to adults in captivity to provide the next generation.

Smolts are a combination of those reared in hatcheries and those naturally spawned and reared in lakes and streams.

About a third of this year's returning adult sockeye have spent their entire lives in the wild.

Fish and Game also has added its Springfield Hatchery near Blackfoot for sockeye, and it's raising more than 200,000 young fish that are schedule to be released in 2015.

F&G hopes to eventually produce a million sockeye smolts annually at Springfield to release into the wild.

"With the hatchery program and anadromous fish, we're at a good spot with our smolt program, and our numbers should increase from here," Baker said.

It's not just hatcheries getting a boost. This year, more than 2,000 adult sockeye will naturally spawn in Redfish Lake, which is a combination of fish returning from the ocean and adults raised in captivity.

Barring something catastrophic, Baker doesn't foresee any more single-digit returns, and while far from recovered, sockeye are trending in the right direction.

That's important, because they are a unique fish and likely irreplaceable, which is why such effort went into saving them.

Idaho's sockeye are the southern-most population in the world and also have the longest migration. The fish swim about 900 miles up the Columbia, Snake and Salmon rivers to about 6,500-feet elevation in the Stanley Basin.

Redfish Lake sockeye salmon were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1991, the first Idaho salmon to be listed.

By comparison, their fall chinook cousins are relative slackers because they have a short migration.

Idaho has three chinook runs: spring, summer and fall.

Spring and summer chinook swim up snowmelt-swollen rivers and spawn in the upper tributaries of the Snake, Clearwater and Salmon rivers.

Fall chinook return when rivers are typically lowest, remain in the main rivers to spawn, and unlike spring and summer fish that spend months in rivers before spawning, fall fish spawn shortly after arriving.

Fall chinook are also listed under ESA, and the lowest return on record at Lower Granite Dam was 337 fish in 1981.

But they're also trending up, and here's how far the run has come:

As recently as 1994, fewer than 1,000 fall chinook returned (791).

The annual run never topped 10,000 fish between 1975 and 2001.

Last year, 56,565 fall chinook crossed Lower Granite Dam, which was a record since counting began at the dam in 1975.

This year's run could top that mark. More than 20,000 fish have reached Idaho so far, which is about double the 10-year average.

The three runs before last year's record run ranked third, fourth and second, respectively.

Fall chinook and sockeye are different fish, but they've benefitted from the effective use of hatcheries.

That doesn't mean hatcheries are the solution to all our challenges with anadromous fish. In some cases, they've created as many or more problems than they've solved.

But it's also important to give them their due and to say "job well done" to those who have helped turned around two fish populations teetering on the brink of extinction.

Related Pages:
Count the Fish Government Accounting Office, Salmon and Steelhead Recovery Efforts

Roger Phillips
The 2010s Have Been Good for Sockeye, Fall Chinook
Idaho Statesman, September 18, 2014

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