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Commentaries and James Schroeder, Editorials

Two Sockeye Return to Redfish Lake in Idaho

by James Schroeder
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 8, 2007

Here's the thing...

Last year, around this time, I wrote an entry about the sockeye of Redfish Lake in Idaho (see last year's blog entry) I wrote about how Redfish Lake - named for the fabled sockeye salmon that turned its waters red - only saw three (3) wild sockeye return in 2006. I probably mentioned that a species can't really be much more thretened with extintion than one that has three individuals remaining. I'm sure I commented on how lucky those sockeye were last year that there was at least one male and one female. We all know it takes two to tango.

Well, most recent reports for Redfish Lake sockeye in 2007 tell us that these fish will live to tango another year. Of the 80,000 smolts released to the great Snake River in 2005, two (2) have returned to Redfish Lake to complete this most amazing life journey. As in 2006, the returns include both a male and a female. whew. That could have been close.

The sockeye of Redfish Lake travel the farthest inland (about 900 miles from the Columbia River estuary) and to the highest elevation (6,500 feet) of all populations of sockeye. This tremendous journey takes them from the rugged wilderness of Idaho to the salty marine waters at the end of the mighty Columbia River - and back. Two hundred years ago, we can be sure that Lewis and Clark saw more than a few sockeye returning up the Columbia to spawn in Redfish Lake.

With the construction of the four lower Snake River dams in the mid 1950s, however, the numbers of sockeye returning to Redfish Lake started to dwindle. Tens of Thousands. Thousands. Hundreds. Tens. By 1992, there was only one. Lonesome Larry. And, we all know it takes two to tango. Luckily for the Redfish Lake sockeye (but not for Larry), cryogenics and freezers allowed scientists to perpetuate the sockeye of Redfish Lake, saving Larry to spawn another year. Fifteen years - and millions of dollars - later, we have two. Two. 2. Perhaps, not such a great return on this investment. Then again, what is the price of extinction?

In 2007, we may get more sockeye back to Redfish Lake than just these two. Estimates are as high as 10. This is good since scientists are saying that preserving the genetic diversity of our salmon populations is critical for their longterm persistence. Some sicentists are saying that high-elevation spawners may be the populations most genetically able to withstand the habitat changes we will see with global warming. Those that can swim 900 miles inland and climb 6,500 feet to spawn in the clearest and coldest water may be the ones to survive when the waters downstream get too warm, too degraded.

If it takes two to tango, does it take ten to save a population?

If we are serious about recovering the endangered salmon of the Pacific Northwest, we need to support real solutions. As our climate changes and our Northwest rivers become less suitable for our coldwater salmon and steelhead, we need to restore our degraded rivers and estuaries. We need to reconnect pristine habitats by removing outdated dams. And we need to make some tough choices. It is no secret that I support removing the lower Snake River dams. I have written about this issue before in this blog - and I continue to believe that if we want to see salmon as more than expensive remnants of what used to be, that we need to take action now to save them.

James Schroeder
Two Sockeye Return to Redfish Lake in Idaho
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 8, 2007

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