September 4, 2019
By Steve Liebenthal
Stanley, Idaho — Redfish Lake in the Sawtooth Mountains has some of the clearest cleanest water in the United States. It was named for the fish that make a nine hundred mile journey to the Pacific Ocean and back.
"Redfish was named after the fish that turn red when they're spawning," said Andy Munter of Idaho Rivers United. "The old settlers talk about not being able to cross the creeks because there are so many fish it would spook the horses."
But this year sockeye salmon are not returning to Redfish Lake Creek by the tens of thousands, the thousands or even the hundreds.
This year Fish and Game has only captured seventeen sockeye in their trap near Stanley. Only eighty one sockeye have made it past Lower Granite, the last dam on their migration to Idaho.
Every day Fish and Game technicians check a trap on Redfish Lake Creek, hoping to find sockeye, but this year they have mostly found resident pike minnows.
Idaho's most critically endangered salmon face many challenges, including recent warming of the ocean. But this year's return of sockeye was also hit hard two years ago when hundreds of thousands died within minutes of being released.
"It was basically a one hundred percent die-off from sometimes one hundred yards from where they dumped the fish," said Munter. "There was just a shock to 'em."
The fish were raised at the Springfield Hatchery in eastern Idaho, where the water is very hard. When managers released them into the soft water in the Sawtooth Basin, more than eighty percent perished between Redfish Lake Creek and the Snake River.
Now biologists are holding juvenile sockeye in the medium hard water at Sawtooth Hatchery before releasing them into the wild.
"In 2018 we had one of the highest post-release survivals in the history of the program," said IDFG Research Biologist John Powell. "So we know we put a lot of fish out into the ocean, and right now we're kind of waiting for those fish to come back."
Those fish will return to the Sawtooth Basin next year. And despite the initial failure of the Springfield program, conservationists are not blaming Fish and Game for the plight of Idaho sockeye.
"Fish and Game are doing an amazing job of keeping these fish alive, but they're not making the decisions on long-term survival rates," said Munter.
And while Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson has recently said that breaching the four dams in Washington is a possibility, Governor Little has gone on record as saying that is not an option.
Munter hopes that will change as more citizens get involved in salmon recovery.
"There's money and there are ways while we're spending these billions of dollars on the status-quo that is not working for salmon recovery," said Munter.