The Public Paid $14 Million for an Idaho Hatchery
by Rocky Barker
Only 157 endangered Snake River sockeye salmon returned to the Sawtooth Valley this year -- and not one of them came from a $14 million hatchery built to help their recovery.
The Springfield Hatchery opened in eastern Idaho in 2013, paid for by the Bonneville Power Administration -- a federal agency that markets power from dams in the Northwest and whose ratepayers provide a major source of funding for regional salmon recovery. It was designed to add up to 1 million more sockeye that could be released into Redfish Lake Creek near Stanley.
But Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologists discovered the young salmon smolts have been dying after their release because of stress.
"What we have learned is that water chemistry appears to be a significant contributor to reduced survival," Jesse Trushenski, a fish health expert with the department, said when the problem was announced at a meeting Tuesday.
The water in the Springfield Hatchery has an unusually high level of calcium carbonate, making it extremely "hard" while Redfish Lake Creek's water is unusually "soft," said Paul Kline, Fish and Game assistant chief of fisheries. When the smolts were released into the creek, they suffered a physiological shock.
It has taken Fish and Game three years to solve the mystery of the low survival numbers of Springfield-raised sockeye.
Biologists noticed reduced survival from the Springfield fish in 2015, when the first sockeye raised there were placed into the creek to begin their long journey to the Pacific Ocean. But overall, a similar number of ocean-bound Idaho sockeye survived between Lower Granite Dam -- the first the fish encounter on the Snake River -- and Bonneville Dam, compared to Columbia River sockeye populations.
In 2016, with good downstream flows, only 13 percent of Snake River sockeye survived to Bonneville. The usual number of Columbia sockeye survived -- in the range of 50 percent, Kline said.
It was only this spring, when biologists saw thousands of another 230,000 Springfield sockeye die immediately upon release into the creek, that the chemistry issue was discovered. They found high stress hormones in the dead and dying salmon, caused by going from the very hard water to the very soft water.
Kevin Lewis, executive director of Idaho Rivers United, was skeptical when the BPA decided to spend millions on the hatchery. He said breaching the four dams on the lower Snake River in Washington ultimately is the most cost-effective way to recover sockeye.
He questions why biologists for Fish and Game and the other agencies involved didn't consider water hardness an issue in the beginning.
"We the taxpayers are paying the freight for all this," Lewis said.
The agency had water quality experts analyze the water when the hatchery was built, Kline said. No red flags came up. The sockeye raised in other hatcheries, including the Eagle and Sawtooth hatcheries, had none of the same problems.
"What we didn't know was the extremely soft water (in Redfish Lake Creek) was going to be a problem," Kline said.
Experts: Idaho Hatchery Built to Save Salmon is Killing Them by Keith Ridler, ABC News, 11/17/17
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