by Brian Smith
STANLEY -- While the Snake River sockeye salmon dodged extinction, state and federal managers hope to expand rearing efforts at Redfish Lake and soon reintroduce the fish to Pettit and Alturas lakes as part of larger plans to see the endangered fish to a full recovery.
Those proposed efforts are contained in a newly released state and federal draft plan, which calls to attention the numerous threats sockeye face on their journey to the Sawtooth Valley, lists a set of strategies to mitigate those dangers and advocates for a volley of research and monitoring efforts.
"We know we have a long way to go, and this draft plan is an important road map to organize our collective efforts," said Will Stelle, regional administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries in a release.
NOAA is taking public comments on the draft plan through Sept. 19. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Idaho Office of Species Conservation and Idaho Northwest Power and Conservation Council are also partners on the plan.
Returning Snake River sockeye, the world's southernmost population, must travel 900 miles and climb 6,500 feet -- a distance and elevation gain greater than any other sockeye migration.
Before their populations plummeted due to overfishing, irrigation, habitat degradation and hydropower development, an estimated 150,000 sockeye returned to the Sawtooth Valley annually to spawn in five lakes: Redfish, Pettit, Alturas, Yellowbelly and Stanley, according to the report.
The fish was listed as endangered in 1991. Since, managers focused their efforts on captive broodstock programs in Redfish Lake to keep the population from extinction. Populations of hatchery and wild sockeye have since increased, but not enough to be considered recovered.
The decades-in-the-making plan is the first broad, long-range look at achieving full sockeye recovery, said David Mabe, Snake Basin office director for the NOAA Fisheries. The plan's first five years are estimated to cost $20.2 million and $101.4 million over the next 25 years.
It will also mean the reintroduction of sockeye to Pettit and Alturas lakes -- and possibly Stanley Lake -- the betterment of their habitats and removal of objects that block sockeye's returns to those lakes from the upper Salmon River. That means doing something -- removal, modification or otherwise -- with the several weirs that prohibit salmon from reaching those lakes.
Managers will also carefully research to determine their efforts won't change the lake ecosystem for the poorer or be fruitless, Mabe said. "They are in pretty good shape now, so you won't have to do major habitat work, but there can be unfavorable changes in lake ecology, water quality and are there acceptable nutrients for the number of fish we want to see?"
The document's release also ushers in the second phase of sockeye recovery, which calls for more wild sockeye being incorporated into hatchery programs, according to the report.
"Phase 1 was rescue the fish -- let's capture what we've got, get a broodstock program and save the genetics," Mabe said. "... Now that we've effectively got that work done, it is time to start into more of a production mode that you really start to do more research and learn what the limiting factors are for these fish."
More fish released means more opportunities to investigate what's killing the sockeye en route. Only 0.06 to 2.48 percent of smolt released in the Sawtooth Valley between 2004 and 2006 survived their three- to five-year journey from their natal lakes to the ocean and back, Mabe said.
The eight hydroelectric dams that form the Federal Columbia River Power System contribute to that mortality. But researchers hope boosted populations will reveal why adult sockeye are also being lost above that dam system before they reach the Stanley Basin, Mabe said.
The plan also touches on ocean conditions and climate change. From 1977 through the 1990s, poor ocean conditions helped drive the Snake River sockeye population to a "very small remnant population." While ocean conditions have since rebounded, climate change also threatens the population's survival, the report indicates.
Changes in temperature, precipitation, wind patterns, and sea-level height due to climate change have "profound implications" on the fish in freshwater and ocean habitats, the report states. Since the population is the world's southernmost, they may be more susceptible to temperature change, he said.
"We aren't going to go out and try to change greenhouse gas emissions as part of the recovery plan, but we'll look at habitat fish use we think will have an advantage because it's cooler refuge and protect and enhance those features," he said.
For more information and to comment on the draft plan, visit http://bit.ly/SnakeRiverSockeye.
Count the Fish by Government Accounting Office, GAO-02-612, Salmon and Steelhead Recovery Efforts
Sockeye Draft Recovery Plan Shows Just How Far Away Success Is by Rocky Barker, Idaho Statesman, 7/21/14
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