Underwriting provided by:
The Laura Moore Cunningham

OI Conversations: Mike Peterson, Senior Fisheries Manager, Idaho Department of Fish and Game

Mike Peterson is a senior fisheries manager for Idaho Fish and Game. He is the sockeye research biologist for Redfish Lake. He was also one of the first Aaron Kunz spoke to about the salmon program in Idaho. Peterson provided a lot of insight about the sockeye program and was instrumental in allowing us to shoot footage of salmon in the Sawtooth basin. This interview was done in August 2011.

Kunz: Explain the work that you have been doing here near Stanley.
Mike Peterson: What we've been doing here over the past couple of days is trapping adult sockeye that are returning from the ocean. These fish come from a variety of release strategies and part of my job is to evaluate how well the different release strategies work. We are looking for marks on specific returns - that tells us what release strategy they are from and then we estimate how their survival for each of those different release strategies.

Kunz: How many do you expect to return this year? (2011)
Peterson: Right now with today's numbers were probably close to 300 adults that have returned. We expect approximately 5 to 7-hundred more fish that should show up in the basin this year. (Peterson expected less than the 1355 they received in 2010. They estimated around 1,000 adult sockeye would return. More than 1,100 made the trip in 2011. This is the total return, only 150 were natural returns. Those fish allowed to spawn naturally at Redfish Lake.)

Kunz: I understand there is confusion whether this has been a recovery project or conservation project.
Peterson: One of the biggest misconceptions is that - since 1991 that this has been a recovery project for Snake River salmon...or sockeye salmon. This has always been a genetic conservation program. We were trying to keep these fish from going extinct since the project started back in 1991. We've done a really good job of keeping the genetic diversity that was present in the population in 1991 in - the majority of that genetic diversity is present still today.

One of the things that the Idaho Department of Fish and Game has tried to do is develop a smolt hatchery for sockeye salmon. One of the things that we have learned over the past few years is that if we release smolt size fish as one of our release strategies. Those fish do really well at going to the ocean and coming back. That explains a lot of the adult returns since 2008. So we are in the process of building a smolt hatchery that will rear up to a million smolts a year.

When we release those smolts we should see anywhere between five thousand to ten thousand adults return each year. And so that's how we're going to transition towards a recovery project.

One of the other things that we've learned is that - the fish that we put in the lake that spawn naturally. Even though it's a smaller number of fish. Those fish go the ocean and return at higher survival rates than some of our other release strategies.

Kunz: What is the impact of salmon on the place Idaho.
Peterson: Well, just some of the anecdotal information that we're seeing just from the minimal returns that we've had over the past few years. We know that predators are pretty adapt to being able to find the food sources they need and we've seen the number of bald eagles that are migrating through this area in the fall increase.

Just on observations on the lake alone. When I started with the project five years ago - you'd be lucky to see an eagle on the lake in November. And I think last fall we saw ten to fifteen birds each time we went out in the fall. So these animals are able to find the food source when it's available and after some lean years in the 90's - for many reasons salmon are beginning to become a little more abundant in the basin and we're seeing some response to some of those other animals, the predators.

Kunz: Describe Sockeye salmon and the journey they make as adults back to Idaho from the ocean.
Peterson: So the way that I feel about these fish in general is - these fish travel to the highest elevation. They are the furthest south in their distribution and they travel the furthest inland of any sockeye population in the world. So I kind of think of those fish as the superman of the sockeye species.

There was a time when every fish caught at these traps were taken to Eagle. That's not the case anymore, some fish you actually allow to return to Redfish Lake on their own.

We feel like we've done a really good job of conserving the genetics that are available in a population. We know that a majority of these fish that are coming back are from a smolt release group. We'll do a genetic workup and we'll determine if we go a thousand fish back, we'd keep a hundred of those fish to incorporate into our brood stock program. And so the other 900 would come back into the basin and be released into Redfish Lake to spawn naturally. How we determine whether the fish is kept is based on genetic evaluation that we do and we always keep the least related individuals to the rest of the brood stock.

Currently this is a closed population so that there is no new genetics coming into it and until we get significant numbers...increase in numbers we are not likely to see much change in the genetic. When we start putting adults into the lake, they are going to mate randomly and we may see some changes in the genetics based on those observations and those crosses that occur in the lake.

Kunz: Based on the numbers, it might be easy to say success. But is it too early to start celebrating?
Peterson: Yeah, I do think it might be a little too early to make assumptions that we are going to recover this population quickly. I do think we are moving in the right direction, we have had steps that are leading us to believe that these fish can recover and that they can do essentially better than we've seen the Chinook salmon do that returned to the upper basin. We see better survival rates for Sockeye when they go out as juveniles and some of the very preliminary information suggests they do better coming back as adults as some of the Chinook populations that are in the upper basin. So I definitely think that these fish are not as fragile as we once thought. We are learning a lot every single day about this particular fish species and it's capabilities and how resilient they are against some of the things they have to deal with in the natural environment.