Sockeye Salmon Return to the Snake River

During the sockeye salmon spawning season of 1992, one salmon was named “Lonesome Larry” because he was the only fish to complete the migration that year. This year, Larry’s descendants are not so lonesome.

Photo Credit: Chris WilleyWhen Sockeye Salmon are ready to mate, their bodies turn red and their heads turn green.
When Sockeye Salmon are ready to mate, their bodies turn red and their heads turn green.

Each summer the sockeye salmon of the Snake River swim 900 miles upstream to the mating waters of Redfish Lake in central Idaho. This is a journey in and of itself- but making the route even more challenging, there are 8 hydropower dams along the river for the migrating salmon to deal with.

Idaho Fish & Game’s Dan Baker is focused on protecting the fish that are doing the migration- he collects sockeye at the Redfish Lake Creek trap and will hold them at a hatchery until it is time to spawn in September.

“Most of these fish so far have been four-year-old fish. They’re running about 3.5 pounds. They’re just over a month from spawning, so they’re really getting that reddish color to ’em, the bright red color” says Baker.

Dams on the lower Snake River were completed in 1975 and sockeye salmon numbers have been diminishing over the last few decades. Redfish Lake is of course named after the reddish color that sockeye salmon turn during spawning, and the lake used to be stuffed full of the fish.

“They are far away from where they used to be. I don’t know if they’ll ever get back there, but they’re trying. Now they’ve got hundreds coming back. So hopefully in ten years there’s thousands,” says Sportsfisherman Chancey Buttars of Preston, Idaho.

Salmon numbers have been increasing due to a variety of efforts over the past few years. Idaho Fish & Game have significantly increased hatchery production of the salmon, there have been some good water years to flush water out to the ocean, dam owners like Booneville Power have made modifications to aid the passage of smolts, and Baker himself has been trapping and moving the salmon during spawning season. Another large factor was the ruling of a federal judge calling for higher flows and more water spilling over the tops of dams.

“Everything sort of lined up the last two years to really get these good returns. It’s helped all the salmon,” said Baker.

Bill Sedivy, the director of the environmental group Idaho Rivers United, argues that while progress is encouraging, the dams need to go and the river should become natural again.

In some ways, the futures of the dams, the sockeye salmon runs and the Snake River in general hinge on what the Obama Administration says about dam operations and water flows through court filings expected next month.

For now, though, Lonesome Larry has some company.

Written by Scott James

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