State, tribe break ground on new sockeye hatchery

By Eric Barker
Lewiston, Idaho (AP) July 2012

For more than two decades, Idaho, the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe and the federal government have tried to prevent the extinction of Snake River sockeye salmon.

Now the coalition is poised to take what an Idaho Fish and Game biologist calls a real step toward recovery of the highly endangered species. The state broke ground on July 13 on the long-planned Springfield Hatchery near American Falls. When finished sometime next year, the hatchery is expected to boost production of sockeye smolts from 200,000 a year to more than 1 million, with the first release of hatchery sockeye planned for 2015.

“Springfield is going to allow us the opportunity to get these things out of the museum,” said Jeff Heindel of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, told the Lewiston Tribune ( ).

“We have spent 20 years trying to prevent extinction of the stock and to maintain genetic diversity of the stock. Only now are we going to have the opportunity to make a step forward and try to recover these fish,” he said.

The Northwest Power and Conservation Council signed off on the $13.5 million hatchery set on the north shore of American Falls Reservoir near the tiny town of Springfield. The state received funding to build the hatchery in 2008 when it, other Northwest states and most Columbia River treaty tribes signed agreements known as the Columbia River Fish Accords.

“This is an important step for our state and for the Northwest, as we are showing how a species on the brink of extinction can be restored through the dedication and collaboration of state, federal, and tribal scientists and policymakers,” said Bill Booth, one of Idaho’s representatives on the power and conservation council.

Sockeye were the first species of Snake River anadromous fish to be protected by the Endangered Species Act. They were listed in 1993 following the return of just one fish, a male dubbed Lonesome Larry in 1992. No fish made the 900-mile journey up the Columbia, Snake and Salmon rivers to Stanley Basin in 1990.

The fish were put on life support after the listing and all adults that returned successfully were spawned in hatcheries. To boost the numbers, most of the offspring were kept in a captive breeding program. Instead of being released as smolts to begin a downriver journey toward the ocean, they were raised in hatcheries to adulthood and spawned artificially. The state continued to breed the fish in captivity and increasingly released more and more smolts each year.

Over the past several years about 200,000 smolts have been released to make their way to the ocean. The increased hatchery program, in combination with improved ocean conditions and spill at Snake River dams, led to increasing returns of the fish. More than 900 fish have made it at least as far as Lower Granite Dam since 2008.

Heindel expects returns to bounce between 500 to 1,500 over the next few years but to jump up once Springfield comes on line and the production of smolts jumps five-fold or so. Eventually the hope is the fish will become re-established in the wild, with many of the young fish released in the Stanley Basin.

The first step will be to stop the captive breeding program and then to make the run less and less reliant on any sort of artificial production.

“We want to try to get a large number of adults back into the natural habitat and allow those things to spawn on their own and produce wild fish.”