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Idaho Chinook Still in Trouble

by Roger Phillips
Idaho Statesman, July 29, 2007

15 years after wild salmon were listed for federal protection,
runs haven't recovered to fishable numbers.

Idaho salmon are indisputably in decline. All of Idaho's wild salmon species are either on the endangered species list or extinct. But Idaho's political leaders and the department charged with preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state's wildlife have recently been quiet about wild salmon recovery.

With a new governor, congressman, and Idaho Department of Fish and Game director taking office this year, along with an old guard of politicians and tribal leaders long involved in salmon issues, we decided to ask what they are doing to help recover Idaho's salmon.

But first, a refresher. The whole salmon debate can be confusing and seemingly contradictory. For example, wild spring/summer chinook are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, but Idaho anglers have been able to fish for their hatchery-bred cousins for the last eight years, which is the longest consecutive streak of seasons in 33 years.

Historically, the spring/summer chinook run is less than 5 percent of its level before Lewis and Clark arrived, and wild spring/summer chinook have been listed for 15 years.

Scientists estimate 1.5 million spring/summer chinook returned to the Snake River system in the late 1800s. By the late 1960s, they had dwindled to about 100,000 per year.

About 61,000 spring/summer chinook have crossed Lower Granite Dam annually in the last 10 years.

Strongest link in a weak chain

Idaho's wild coho have gone extinct, and its sockeye run has shrunk to a total of 349 fish returning since 1997.

Idaho's strongest run, the spring/summer chinook, is a combination of hatchery and wild salmon. Although they appear nearly identical, live in the same rivers and migrate back and forth from the ocean together, each serves different roles.

Hatchery salmon are bolstered by millions of dollars in annual subsidies from federal and private dam operators. Hatcheries pour millions of young salmon into Idaho rivers every year in hopes that one in 100 will return as an adult.

Wild salmon must produce the next generation in an environment that is severely altered by man, from dams on the Lower Snake that block or slow their migration, to irrigators in Idaho's interior who suck headwater rivers nearly dry every summer.

Far fewer wild salmon are produced each year when compared with their hatchery cousins, which are hand-fed in raceways until they are ready to migrate to the ocean.

For wild salmon to recover, more young salmon must survive to adulthood and return to Idaho's rivers to spawn.

Glimmer of hope or sole survivor?

Three years after spring/summer chinook were listed under the Endangered Species Act, Idaho had a record-low return of about 1,800 fish in 1995. Although they have since rebounded, their numbers are still well below recovery goals.

When originally protected in 1992, federal agencies decided the fish would be considered restored if 31,440 wild chinook crossed Lower Granite Dam - the last Snake River dam they cross before Idaho - for eight consecutive years. That number has been reached only once since the fish were protected.

The target number has since been reduced. The Interior Columbia Basin Technical Recovery Team established minimum criteria for 32 chinook populations in the Snake River system and calculated at least 26,000 spawners were needed to prevent extinction.

That minimum number has been reached only three times since the fish received ESA protection, and it ensures only that the salmon are likely to escape extinction, not that anglers will be able to fish for them.

Meanwhile, the hatchery chinook have provided limited fishing for sport and tribal anglers. This year's season offered a brief chance to catch one of Idaho's most prized fish.

Anglers harvested 2,087 salmon in Idaho this year. Idaho's annual sport harvest has averaged 12,811 since 2000.

While anglers appreciate the opportunity to catch a chinook salmon, wild salmon will always be the weather vane of the health of our Northwest rivers. Recovering them will be a multistate and long-term effort.

Get up-to-date on the salmon situation

If you haven't been following Idaho's salmon situation for decades, here's a box score update.

Learn more about fish

Anadromous A fish that is born in fresh water then migrates to the ocean and returns as an adult to spawn in freshwater is called anadromous. Idaho's anadromous fish include salmon, steelhead and lamprey eels. Sturgeon are anadromous, but dams block their migration and they've become landlocked in Idaho.

Wild salmon Salmon that spawn naturally in rivers are wild. Wild salmon can be native salmon or hatchery fish that have either strayed or have been planted with the intent of having them spawn naturally as adults to replenish rivers that have lost a native population.

Hatchery salmon Salmon raised in hatcheries help mitigate the loss of wild salmon runs that occurred after the Snake River dams were built. Most hatchery fish serve two purposes: to replenish hatcheries and to provide sport fishing. The adipose fins of these fish are clipped so they can be easily identified.

Jack A male salmon that returns after just one year in the ocean. Jacks are a predictor of the next year's run size because most salmon return after two years in the ocean.

Roger Phillips
Idaho Chinook Still in Trouble
Idaho Statesman, July 29, 2007

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