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return to red fish

Return to Red Fish

(article and photos from Save Wild Salmon)



Snake River sockeye are unique. These fish swim farther (more than 1,800 miles from their spawning grounds to the ocean and back) and higher (almost 7,000 feet of elevation gain) than any other salmon on the planet. A century ago, as many as 40,000 sockeye made it back to this picturesque alpine lake, turning its waters red. But in 2007, just four fish survived this journey, and in 2006, only three crimson sockeye made it home to Redfish Lake. In fact, prospects have been so bleak for these fish that they have been declared functionally extinct by most fish biologists in the region and few held hope that the lake would ever support a self-sustaining population again.

But sockeye are both surprising and resilient. With help from a federal court and from salmon advocates fighting against the federal government, improvements were put in place that scientists say are helping these fish make their way back home this year. All indications are that more Snake River sockeye will return to Idaho this year than we’ve seen in a generation. For a species that has been largely abandoned, it is indeed exciting and inspirational to watch this year’s return and to hope again that the fabled Redfish Lake could turn red once more with these magnificent creatures.

However, we shouldn’t confuse one good year with the true recovery of a species that has been on the federal Endangered Species List since 1991. The truth is that Snake River sockeye are still a long way from recovery and the short-term protections that salmon advocates fought for and won in federal court — the very actions that have saved these fish from disappearing — have already been eliminated by the federal government. As Snake River sockeye continue their valiant struggle to survive, federal agencies continue to strip away even the most basic of protections.

The federal government’s recently released salmon plan (also called a Biological Opinion, or “BiOp”) rolls back — and even eliminates — many of the measures that have resulted in this year’s higher returns. According to the Fish Passage Center, an independent science and data analysis agency that monitors Columbia and Snake River salmon and steelhead, this year’s better returns are likely the result of more water left in the river and the spilling of additional water over dams when these fish were migrating to the ocean as young salmon in 2006. Those in-river improvements were ordered by U.S. District Court Judge James Redden after conservationists and fishermen fought to have them instituted — over the vehement objections of federal agencies. And all of that progress was thrown out the window when federal agencies finalized their latest salmon plan in May and rolled back these efforts.

But one good year of sockeye returns doesn’t mean much after decades of mostly dismal counts. A few hundred fish may have managed to beat all odds and complete their miraculous journey this year, but such a number pales in comparison to the tens of thousands that used to return before dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers decimated their migration patterns. Eight consecutive years of sustained returns of at least 1,500 fish would be necessary (we saw about 600 — less than one-half of that goal — this year), according to NOAA Fisheries, to get these fish out of the ICU and into the recovery room, but the federal government seems intent on preventing that from happening.

The Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s Independent Scientific Advisory Board concluded in 2006 that the Snake River sockeye captive breeding program — which is essentially the equivalent of life support for these fish — was unlikely to ever result in the recovery of the species unless other downstream impacts were addressed. Namely, scientists tell us that the best — and perhaps only — way to recover the endangered Snake River salmon runs is to remove four outdated and costly dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington. With these dams in place, along with rollbacks of current salmon protections, this promising year of sockeye returns may be squandered.

What this year’s strong returns tell us is that there’s still hope for the world’s most endangered salmon. That is, when rivers are allowed to run just a bit more like rivers, salmon are resilient enough to surprise us with their ability to rebound. Favorable snowpack and ocean conditions, combined with the court-ordered spill and river flow mandates, have done wonders for Snake River sockeye. Imagine what could happen if the four largest obstacles in their path, the four lower Snake River dams, were removed. But if we continue down the path the federal government has charted for the Columbia and Snake rivers in its current plan, this year’s gains will fall by the wayside, we’ll never again experience Redfish Lake as it’s meant to be, and Snake River sockeye will indeed be lost to future generations.

There is still time to ensure that this year’s encouraging sockeye returns are not squandered. Removing the four dams on the lower Snake River will clear the way for a cost-effective, biologically sound plan to recover these iconic fish. It is possible to have thriving salmon populations, ample fishing opportunities, and plenty of low-cost, clean energy, but only if we take out those four dams. With real leadership from Congress, we can both save the Northwest’s signature species and reap the economic benefits of a restored river.

Congress and the new administration can introduce solutions legislation to remove these four dams, protect communities, and replace their power with clean energy. Only with this type of long-term solutions legislation will future generations be able to experience the legendary Redfish Lake as it turns crimson with sockeye once again.

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