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Sockeye Salmon: Canary in Coal Mine for Health of NW Rivers

Only 14 salmon born in central Idaho's Redfish Lake returned from the ocean last year. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Only 14 salmon born in central Idaho's Redfish Lake returned from the ocean last year. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
May 26, 2020

BOISE, Idaho -- Sockeye salmon offspring are making their way from central Idaho to the Pacific Ocean.

Many people in the Northwest see the 1,000-mile journey as miraculous. But the tiny smolt face a number of challenges and the species is near extinction.

Andy Munter is the owner of Backwoods Mountain Sports in Ketchum and an Idaho Rivers United board member. He says sockeye are the "canary in the coal mine" for the health of the river.

"If we know that they're coming back, we know that we have a relatively free-flowing river, relatively cool river, relatively free of pesticides and some of those other problems," he states. "But when they don't come back, we know we have problems in that whole corridor."

Idaho's natural-origin sockeye, or sockeye born in Redfish Lake, are at drastically low numbers. Munter says only 14 returned from the ocean last year.

He says one challenge for sockeye and other endangered fish species is the four dams on the lower Snake River, which the fish use to get to and from the ocean.

Combined with a warming climate, Munter says water temperatures behind the dams could spell doom for more sockeye in the future.

"They stop migrating back up when temperature gets into the high 60s and all die in some of the lower reservoirs like happened a few years ago," he explains.

The executive director of the Idaho Wildlife Federation, Brian Brooks, says impediments such as the dams and warmer waters have drastically changed fish migration. The journey from Redfish Lake to the ocean used to take two days.

"Now, it can take upwards to 40 days to try to find the current and get their way to the ocean," he points out.

Brooks says even decent returns of salmon and steelhead can account for a quarter of rural river communities' income, meaning healthier rivers would support Idaho economically.

Brooks says the fish are resilient and will return if they have the chance.

"People in the Northwest -- we should be in the business of preserving miracles, and we have one right in front of us," he stresses. "And if we do nothing it will go away. That's what the sockeye are telling us -- that all the species are headed that way if we don't do anything."

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - ID