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OI Salmon: 2011 Sockeye Counts Exceed Expectations
(Story originally published on EarthFix)
Written By Aaron Kunz
Edited by David Steves

BOISE, Idaho - Idaho's sockeye salmon are coming home in bigger numbers than expected.

That's a pleasant surprise for hatchery managers with Idaho's Department of Fish and Game. With about two weeks remaining in the migration season, the number of returning sockeye surpassed the department's 1,000-fish target at Wednesday's Sockeye Roundup, says department biologist Mike Peterson. That is just below the 1,355 sockeye count in 2010 says Peterson who attributes the decline to natural survival rates. "There are different environmental factors that play into their survival," he says. "We expect fluctuations in the population."

So what is the Sockeye Roundup? Peterson explains that Idaho Fish and Game have been holding the Sockeye Roundup since 2003 as a way to gather Sockeye that are caught below the Sawtooth Hatchery trap.

About this time of year, Peterson asks volunteers - made up primarily those with a stake in the sockeye preservation - to help catch those stragglers in nets. The fish are then weighed, measured, and tagged and then transported to either Redfish Lake or the Eagle Hatchery.

Sockeye Roundup participants

Jeff Heindel is the hatcheries manager for Idaho Fish and Game. He says this is a highlight of the year for volunteers, who include Fish and Game employees, Bonneville Power Administration staff members, and members of the public who want to participate.

"You are going to see something today that these folks have spent their entire career working for the agency and have never seen or never held an anadromous sockeye salmon. This is pretty big," says Heindel who explains to volunteers the history and mission of the sockeye program.

The Salmon River, where the Sawtooth Hatchery traps are located, is relatively shallow. The water varies between ankle- to hip-level depths and is located below the Sawtooth Mountains. About two dozen volunteers then take large nets into the water and gather the sockeye to be caught in nets and plopped into tanks attached to white Fish and Game trucks for transport.

Peterson says they take genetic samples and identify the sex of the fish. It's here they check to see if the sockeye are healthy enough to be taken to Redfish Lake. Peterson says they try to avoid transporting salmon in poor health to prevent spreading disease to the lake population.

Doug Engemann is manager of the Springfield Hatchery, the facility is considered an important part of the state's strategy to move beyond preserving dwindling sockeye stock. The former trout hatchery is being converted with money from the BPA into a sockeye hatchery, which Engemann says will help repopulate sockeye in Redfish Lake and the Salmon River.

Bonneville Power Administration purchased the old hatchery for $4.75 million and deeded the site to Idaho Fish and Game. The BPA is also funding the construction of the new sockeye rearing facility there.

IdahoPTV videographer Jay Krajic shoots footage for the show.

Construction is set to begin in mid 2012, with completion expected by late 2013. The hatchery will be responsible for taking sockeye eggs from the Eagle Hatchery near Boise and raising them to the smolt stage. Smolts are juvenile fish that have hatched and are approximately six months to a year old. Engemann says fish managers have learned that hatchery-raised sockeyes have a greater survivability rate if they are retained in rearing facilities until they reach smolt stage. The future Springfield Hatchery will likely raise a million smolts a year once it's up and running.

Engemann says the program has evolved from the captive brood programs that began 20 years ago to save the nearly extinct species. Up to this point, Idaho Fish and Game has raised sockeyes and keep them in the state's waters to avoid the high mortality risks faced by juveniles swimming downriver past eight dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. In recent years the agency has allowed a growing number of sockeye to breed naturally at Redfish Lake and other Idaho locations. Allowing them to migrate to to the Pacific Ocean and back. Along the way the salmon travel almost 900 miles and climb 650 feet in elevation. That's one of the longest runs of any fish in the world.

It's that journey that amazes Sockeye Roundup volunteer Barbara Gudgel, who lives in Stanley, Idaho.

"They are going to release 1.7 million fish this year and one in a thousand will come back. That's it, so I mean - I have never seen anything in nature so remarkable" she says.

This is Gudgel's first year volunteering for the roundup. Sockeye play such an important role here in the Sawtooth mountains she says, Redfish Lake was named for the species. There was a time when the numbers of red Sockeye salmon caused the water at Redfish Lake appear red in color.

The sockeye salmon are a big deal in Stanley, visitors from all over the country come here every year to fish and visit the Sawtooth Hatchery. They all spend money here and that helps the locals who have to make a living in a town that has just 63 residents according to the 2010 census. But Gudgel says salmon means a lot more to her, she likens it to allowing the bald eagle to go extinct.

"You just wouldn't do that, would you?" she declares. "It's the same for these amazing fish."