Idaho’s sockeye salmon escape the ‘extinction vortex’

Sockeye salmon in a spawning stream in the Pacific Northwest. Photo via Wikimedia and the Creative Commons.

20-year recovery effort showing strong results

Staff Report

FRISCO — After nearly disappearing in swirl of an “extinction vortex,” Snake River sockeye salmon are back and regaining the fitness of their wild ancestors.

“This is a real American endangered species success story,” said Will Stelle, administrator of NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region. “With only a handful of remaining fish, biologists brought the best genetic science to bear and the region lent its lasting support. Now there is real potential that this species will be self-sustaining again. The sockeye didn’t give up hope and neither did we.”

The latest counts are showing naturally spawned juvenile sockeye migrating to the ocean and returning as adults at a much higher rate than other species released from hatcheries.

Biologists believe the increased return rate of sockeye spawned naturally by hatchery-produced parents is high enough for the species to eventually sustain itself in the wild again.

Biologists Paul Kline of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and Thomas Flagg of NOAA Fisheries’ Northwest Fisheries Science Center reported the results in the November issue of Fisheries, the magazine of the American Fisheries Society.

Their study shows that the program to save Snake River sockeye can indeed reverse the so-called “extinction vortex,” where too few individuals remain for the species to sustain itself. Some thought that Snake River sockeye had entered that vortex in the 1990s, highlighted in 1992 when the sole returning male Redfish Lake sockeye, known as “Lonesome Larry” captured national attention.

NOAA Fisheries earlier this year released a proposed recovery plan for Snake River sockeye, which calls for an average of 1,000 naturally spawned sockeye returning to Redfish Lake each year, with similar targets for other lakes in Idaho’s Sawtooth Valley. About 460 naturally spawned sockeye returned to Redfish Lake this year – the most since the program began – out of an overall record return of about 1,600.

The 20-year recovery program started with 16 remaining adult sockeye – 11 males and five females – taken into captivity from 1991 to 1998. Through advanced aquaculture techniques, the program has retained about 95 percent of the species’ remaining genetic variability, while boosting surviving offspring about 2,000 percent beyond what could be expected in the wild.

The program funded by the Bonneville Power Administration has released more than 3.8 million sockeye eggs and fish into lakes and streams in the Sawtooth Valley, and tracks the fish that return from the ocean. Hatchery fish returning as adults have also begun spawning again in Redfish Lake, increasingly producing naturally spawned offspring that are now also returning.

Now, naturally spawned sockeye are returning at rates up to three times higher than those released from hatcheries as smolts, and more than 10 times greater than those released as even younger pre-smolts.

The higher returns indicate the naturally spawned fish are regaining the fitness the species needs to better survive their 900-mile migration to the ocean, their years at sea, and the return trip to Redfish Lake.

A salmon population must produce at least one returning offspring per adult to sustain itself. Naturally spawned sockeye have returned at more than twice that rate in some years, indicating that under the right conditions they can not only sustain the species but add to it.

The results also suggest that hatchery-produced sockeye may regain the fitness advantages they need to sustain their species in the wild much faster than had been previously estimated, the scientists reported. Biologists caution that the current results span only three years so far, but indicate that fitness – and, in turn, survival – can improve in as little as only one generation in the wild.

We hoped we could get returns equivalent to what you’d expect to see from a hatchery,” said Flagg, manager of the NOAA Fisheries Northwest Fisheries’ Science Center’s Manchester Research Station. “We’ve seen the population respond even better than that, which bodes well for the idea that the lakes can produce the juveniles you’d want to see to get to recovery.”



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