BOISE — Twenty years ago this Saturday, a very determined sockeye salmon arrived at Idaho’s Redfish Lake.
Driven by powerful genetic impulses, he swam 900 miles up the Columbia, Snake and Salmon rivers. He scaled eight dams, drove upstream through major rapids and climbed 6,547 feet. He refused to eat, dodged predators and passed by anglers’ bait.
His purpose was singular: to spawn and perpetuate his kind.
But Lonesome Larry returned alone on Aug. 4, 1992, the first year after his species was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
“This is one of the epic nature stories of our time,” said IRU Assistant Policy Director Greg Stahl. “This lone fish, a remnant of his species’ former magnificence, traveled the gauntlet of dams from Idaho to the Pacific, swam the lonely ocean for two or three years, and then fought to return — alone. Only he survived. The tragedy can’t be overstated.”
Though tragic, Larry’s epic journey was not in vain.
This famous fish became part of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s captive breeding program to save the Northwest’s most endangered salmon from extinction. His milt was put on ice and used to fertilize eggs from returning females in 1996 and 1997. His genes are now scattered throughout a percentage of every new generation of sockeye, including the 1,000 or so fish that are likely to return in 2012.
“Now, while sockeye numbers have improved some, 20 years after Lonesome Larry’s return we’re still not a lot closer to actual recovery of salmon than we were then,” said IRU board member Tom Stuart. “This is a good time to pause and reflect on the tragedy of this decline, the limited progress made for salmon since 1992, and on the opportunities we still have to recover this iconic species.”
Aided by court-ordered spill to assist downstream migration of baby salmon, plentiful snowpack, friendly ocean conditions and dramatically pumped-up hatchery releases, a thousand or more sockeye returned each year since 2010 —until this year’s projected return of about 300 sockeye.
“I’m thrilled to see progress, but Idaho’s redfish are not yet safe. These returns represent only a fraction of the potential, only a fraction of what’s needed for recovery,” Stuart said. “Scientists say that we need 2,000 natural-origin sockeye returning for eight consecutive years before we can even think about removing the species from the Endangered Species list.”
From 2009 to 2011, only 10 to 13 percent of returning sockeye were of natural origin — fish hatched and grown in conditions as nature intended — and recovery is about natural returns. These natural sockeye returns represent a small return on a large hatchery investment.
In 2007, benefiting from court-ordered spill, an estimated 143,547 sockeye smolts left the upper Salmon River system en route to the Pacific. When 833 sockeye returned to the Sawtooth Valley in the summer of 2009, that constituted an approximately 0.06 percent return of outgoing fish, far below the minimum return rate of 2 percent scientists say is required to sustain natural populations.
This year, the first sockeye arrived in the Sawtooth Valley on July 25, and biologists are estimating a total of about 300 will make it back — markedly down from recent years.
“We’re grateful that sockeye haven’t gone extinct and that Fish and Game’s captive broodstock program has prevented extinction as it was supposed to do. But this isn’t actual recovery, in legal or biological terms,” Stuart said. “There’s a direct correlation between the number of hatchery fish pumped into the river and the number of fish returning. The return rate is still dismal — probably only 10 percent of what it needs to be. As happy as I am to see hatchery fish returning to Redfish Lake, recovery is about wild fish, and wild fish surviving at higher rates. Hatchery programs and the current spill program won’t be enough to recover this species.”
Historically, Lonesome Larry’s ancestors spawned in October along the shores of Idaho’s glacial lakes: Alturas, Pettit, Yellowbelly, Redfish, Stanley and Payette lakes. Once numbering close to a hundred thousand, the runs dropped to dozens by the late 1970s, and to single digits in the 80s and 90s, by then returning only to Redfish Lake. Only one fish returned to Redfish in 1984, 1988, and 1989. None returned in 1990. In 1991, four fish returned, only one a female. Dubbed Eve, she became another genetic keystone in Fish and Game’s rescue program, founded that same year.
Today, although the captive broodstock program has successfully prevented extinction of sockeye salmon, the core problem remains.
“Idaho’s miraculous sockeye salmon cannot be recovered and removed from their Endangered Species Act listing until the real problem is addressed,” said IRU Executive Director Bill Sedivy said. “Dams on the lower Snake River continue to kill too many baby salmon as they migrate to the Pacific each spring.”
The best available science is clear, Sedivy said.
“Spill is great, especially when snowpack is above average and the ocean has lots of food for salmon to eat. But we can’t count on a friendly ocean every year, or on above-average snowfall for high spring flows. So, removing the four low-value dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington State is still the only sure way to keep redfish in Idaho’s Redfish Lake,” he said. “Sockeye populations are not yet self-sustaining, and the situation can turn grave once again, quite quickly, if any of these stars slip out of line.
“After 20 years, we haven’t come far enough.”