How do you turn 96 fish into 650? The same way you turn a single fish into a salmon run - carefully and creatively. That's what Idaho Fish and Game biologists have done since 1992 when a lone sockeye dubbed "Lonesome Larry" returned to Idaho, and biologists have used an intensive captive broodstock program to save this endangered species.
This is another important year for restoring Idaho's sockeye salmon. The Columbia and Lower Snake rivers had unseasonably high temperatures this summer, warm enough to kill migrating sockeye. To ensure the fish's survival, Fish and Game crews trapped 51 adult sockeye at Lower Granite Dam about 30 miles downstream from Lewiston and trucked them to F&G's Eagle Hatchery near Boise.
The department has also maintained a captive broodstock program for more than 20 years where sockeye are raised from eggs to adults in hatcheries, and their offspring used to supplement naturally returning fish.
The department releases adult sockeye - either natural or captive-bred fish - into Redfish and Pettit lakes near Stanley and allows them spawn in the lakes. Biologists have found that naturally spawning sockeye produce offspring that return at a higher rate than sockeye reared in hatcheries.
That's one reason why Fish and Game plans to release 650 adult sockeye into the lakes in mid-September. Those fish will spawn during fall, and the eggs will hatch in late winter. After spending a year and half rearing in the lake, the young sockeye, known as smolts, will migrate to the ocean during spring.
Those smolts will be joined by about 900,000 sockeye smolts raised at Idaho Fish and Game's Springfield Hatchery, which was built in 2013 and is devoted solely to raising sockeye.
Fish and Game has seen large increases in the annual sockeye returns to Idaho in the last decade, and it hopes to continue that trend despite a difficult year when warm water killed tens of thousands of sockeye in the Columbia River, some of those destined for Idaho.
Out of 1,052 sockeye that crossed Ice Harbor Dam, the first of four dams on the Snake River, only 45 returned to the Sawtooth Basin, not counting the 51 trapped at Lower Granite Dam.
That's the smallest sockeye return since 2007, but still much better than 1991, the year Idaho sockeye were listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. Only four adult sockeye returned that year, and the combined annual returns between 1991-98 was 16 fish, which included two years when none returned.
In 1999, seven adult sockeye returned, which were the initial results of the Fish and Game's sockeye hatchery program. Sockeye continued to struggle throughout the most of the 2000s. Fewer than 30 adults returned annually between 1999 and 2007, except in 2000, when 243 fish returned.
Fast forward to 2008, thanks to the captive broodstock program and favorable river and ocean conditions, the annual sockeye returns since 2008 have averaged 837 fish, including 1,516 in 2014, which was the largest return to the Sawtooth Basin since 1955.
The improvement of the anadromous (ocean-going) sockeye returns and captive broodstock program have allowed Fish and Game to release sockeye to spawn naturally in the Sawtooth Basin lakes. Since 2008, more than 8,700 adult sockeye have been released in the Sawtooth Basin, and the majority of those returned from the ocean.