Sockeye Salmon, and the Endangered Snake River Sockeye Salmon

In the early 1900s, sockeye runs in the Columbia River basin exceeded one million fish annually. Sockeye are the third most abundant species of Pacific salmon. There are more sockeye salmon than chinook salmon, but less than pink (O. gorbuscha) and chum salmon (O. keta). The distinctive feature of sockeye salmon is that they make more use of lake rearing habitat when juveniles. Indeed, there are even subgroups of sockeye that remain in lakes throughout their life—they are called kokanee, and are common in Western lakes, often the product of transplants by fishery agencies.

Sockeye have been successfully introduced into many lakes, including Frazer Lake on Kodiak Island and Lake Washington in Seattle. The Frazer Lake population rose to 142,000 within twenty years after introduction. The Lake Washington stock was apparently transplanted from Baker Lake in the 1940s.

In the Columbia Basin, however, the story of sockeye is one of blocking lake habitat. At the turn of the century, twenty-seven lakes produced sockeye in the Columbia River Basin. Today, only three are left: Lake Wenatchee, Washington; Lake Osoyoos, Washington and British Columbia; and Redfish Lake, Idaho. About 96% of available habitat has been lost.16 One commercial salmon harvester wrote that "[d]ams and irrigation had pretty much destroyed the bluebacks on the Columbia River by the middle 1930s",17 before construction of any mainstem dam.

People who are interested in restoring sockeye populations to historic numbers need to look lake by lake for habitat that can be restored. The sockeye were an important component of the historic Columbia Basin runs, but a lot of lakes would have to be brought back on line for sockeye to resume significant strength.

It is seems clear that it is the loss of lake habitat, not the mainstem Columbia River dams, that limits sockeye salmon production in the Columbia River Basin. The remaining healthy lake systems of Lake Wenatchee and Lake Osoyoos in Washington, are upstream of nine dams. The runs continue notwithstanding the dams.

Sockeye used to inhabit several lakes in the Stanley Basin in Idaho. Early development efforts, including small dams and irrigation diversions, blocked anadromous fish migration into several of these lakes. By the 1940s, the sockeye were almost all gone, with only 200 sockeye reported spawning in Redfish Lake; the run was described as “small” and “greatly depleted”.18 By the 1990s, the sockeye had been reduced to a single lake: Redfish Lake.

One reason this happened is that Idaho Department of Fish and Game poisoned most of the other lakes in the Stanley Basin in "deliberate efforts to substitute trout fisheries for kokanee/sockeye".19 Idaho also constructed small dams at the outlets of some lakes specifically to prevent anadromous and other undesired fish from migrating into the lakes and competing with trout.20

In 1990, the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of Idaho petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to protect the Redfish Lake sockeye under the Endangered Species Act. In 1992, the National Marine Fisheries Service granted the petition, and exercised its authority under the Endangered Species Act to protect the very first endangered "species" of salmon. The listing was limited to the Redfish Lake sockeye population.

The Service ignored scientists who had advised that in all probability the Redfish Lake sockeye were not an endangered species at all, in the sense that the original, native Redfish Lake sockeye were extinct. A dam constructed in 1909-10 by the Golden Sunbeam Mining Company, thirty feet high, blocked all sockeye migration into Redfish Lake from 1910-34, when the south abutment was blown up.21 That would mean that any sockeye now in Redfish Lake are the progeny of strays, resident kokanee or fishery agency transplants from other locations.

Perhaps anxious for the flood of federal funds an Endangered Species Act listing would provoke, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game mobilized researchers to go and interview elderly residents of the Stanley Basin. Some of them claimed to have seen “red fish” in the Lake when they were children, and on this basis, the National Marine Fisheries Service determined that some native sockeye had somehow swum through the dam, and thus the "species" was not extinct.

Recently, in attempting to explain why Redfish Lake sockeye were in such poor condition relative to Upper Columbia sockeye stocks, the National Research Council has again suggested that the Redfish Lake sockeye “might have originated as residual sockeye . . . after the removal of Sunbeam Dam in the 1920s, whereas Columbia River sockeye have had continuous access to the sea and to their natal areas. Residual sockeye might be less fit for the rigors of anadromy.”22 Most probably, the endangered Snake River sockeye salmon, to the extent they ever constituted a distinct species, have long been extinct; what we now protect as endangered species are probably just part of the kokanee population.

Even today, as millions of dollars are spent annually to "recover" these Redfish Lake sockeye, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game continues to fight against restoring the Stanley Basin sockeye to all the lakes where they used to live in the Stanley Basin. The National Marine Fisheries Services acts as if the Idaho Department of Fish and Game has veto power of the decision to reintroduce the sockeye.

By 1996, NMFS’ program to produce fertilized eggs from the few remaining sockeye was such a success that NMFS had over 300,000 such eggs. When NMFS sought to put some of the eggs in Alturas Lake, Keith Johnson, representing IDFG, said that “the Department would certainly oppose such a release, unless IDFG was allowed to conduct a normal rainbow trout stocking and kokanee fisheries . . .”.23 Idaho continues to insist on stocking potential sockeye habitat with both endangered sockeye and their trout predators, and allowing fishermen to catch and kill them both.

16 The facts in this paragraph can be found in ISG, Return to the River 98.

17 F. Seufert, Wheels of Fortune at 6.

18 “Compilation of Information on Salmon and Steelhead Losses in the Columbia River Basin”, Appendix D of the 1987 Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program, at D-86 (NWPPC Mar. 1986).

19 D. Chapman, W. Platts, D. Park & M. Hill, "Status of Snake River Sockeye Salmon", Final Report to PNUCC, June 26, 1990, at 49.

20 Id.

21 Id. at 26-36 (recounting history of Sunbeam Dam).

22 NRC, Upstream at 86 (Prepub. ed.). Sunbeam Dam may not have been removed until the 1930s (W. Ebel, pers. comm, May 5, 1997).

23 Meeting Summary, Stanley Basin Technical Oversight Committee, Sept. 19 1996, at 5 (NMFS Laboratory, Manchester, Washington).

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