Record Number of Natural Spawning
by Tony Evans
Twenty-six fish released into the lake on Wednesday
Despite many challenges that lie ahead, the Snake River sockeye recovery program got a boost on Wednesday when 26 naturally spawned salmon returned to their birthplace at Pettit Lake after a four-year journey.
That is far more than have returned in over 20 years.
Many millions of dollars have been spent since 1995 to recover this endangered species, including the use of fish hatcheries to artificially spawn thousands of sockeye and release them into Redfish and Pettit Lakes in the Sawtooth Basin. Some fish are tagged with electronic devices so they can be tracked during migration.
"Today, thanks to all that we've done in the past, we have fish that left here as juveniles, went all the way to the ocean, became adults and made the journey back to this basin," said Kurt Tardy, sockeye program manager for the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. "This is something that we have not seen in decades."
Tardy joined Idaho Fish and Game personnel, representatives from Idaho Rivers United and other salmon recovery advocates as the fish were removed from a tank in the back of a truck and released one by one into the blue-green waters of Pettit Lake. They slowly schooled around in the shallows, some striking at bugs. It must have felt like home sweet home.
The roundtrip journey encoded in Snake River sockeye DNA is an arduous one. From the Sawtooth Basin to the Pacific Ocean and back covers 1,800 miles through the Columbia, Snake and Salmon rivers. It includes crossing eight dams and covering 6,500 feet in elevation. Tardy said fish such as the ones just released into Pettit Lake to mix with hatchery fish are highly desirable because they are far more likely to produce offspring capable of completing the journey.
"Typically there is always a fitness difference between hatchery stock and wild stock," Tardy said. "Nothing can beat a natural female."
Based on recently compiled data from sockeye returns to all three lakes in the basin, the "smolt-to-return" ratio for natural spawners is about 100 times greater than hatchery raised fish, according to Tom Stuart, a board member of Idaho Rivers United and a longtime participant at sockeye technical recovery meetings.
"This is part of what makes the Pettit Lake effort special," Stuart said. "And it recognizes that the ShoBan emphasis on natural reproduction is the way to go."
One of the fish that returned to Pettit Lake was the first electronically tagged, naturally spawned specimen from the lake.
"It doesn't have a name yet, but it might soon," Tardy said.
Ladd Edmo, a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Business Council, said last month that it would likely be named after an early proponent of the salmon recovery program, possibly someone from the tribes who initiated the endangered listing that led to the recovery program.
Tardy said despite all the hard work the tribes, Fish and Game, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have done for sockeye recovery, outside factors can hinder success.
"Of course, we deal with other factors that we can't control," Tardy said. "Hydroelectric system activities, ocean conditions, the amount of snowpack up here in the basin that provides cool clear water. It's a combination of doing what we can for the wild fish here and hoping that the other factors also control themselves in the environment."
The fish that returned to Pettit Lake Wednesday swam past the Redfish Lake return stream about 15 miles to the north, indicating that they were likely of Pettit Lake stock. DNA testing later confirmed that they were born of Pettit Lake natural spawners.
Tardy said the tribes' immediate goal is to continue flooding the existing gene pool at Pettit Lake with hardy DNA from fish like these, in hopes of establishing a sustainable population of naturally returning sockeye.
Eventually the overall aim of the recovery program is to have natural sockeye runs at Redfish, Pettit and Altura Lakes, according to Tardy, to support the tribes' ultimate goal: restoring the cultural connection the tribes once had to sockeye salmon. That, he said, could take decades. "From the tribes' perspective anything that can spawn naturally in the lake and form its own redd [nest], is a direction we would support," Tardy said. "We also support the Redfish Hatchery program because ultimately that is what jumpstarted Pettit Lake. You need a combination of both."
Count the Fish, 1977-2019, Salmon Recovery Efforts by GAO
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