Printed on: September 07, 2013

Hatchery to multiply fish

By KIRSTEN JOHNSON
kjohnson@postregister.com

Howard Mitchell, a longtime Idaho fisherman, recalls the good old days -- when sockeye salmon at Redfish Lake were plentiful.

"I remember when they were just flourishing," Mitchell said. "There were tons of them."

But soon, the Pingree resident said he saw fewer and fewer -- a decline that only seemed to grow.

"They started to disappear," Mitchell said. "It seemed like the sockeye went first. They started becoming scarce long before the other species (of salmon)."

Mitchell was on hand Friday when the Idaho Department of Fish and Game unveiled its newly completed Springfield Fish Hatchery, which will rear sockeye in hopes of increasing the number of adult sockeye that return to Idaho each year. The hatchery cost $13.5 million and was funded by the Bonneville Power Administration.

The sockeye population plunged starting in the mid-'50s due to a combination of issues, Fish and Game spokesman Dave Parrish said.

"There was overfishing, dams were being built and changes in the ocean conditions," he said. "All of those things came together to just about drive the population of the Upper Salmon Basin to extinction."

By 1992, only one male sockeye returned to the Sawtooth Basin of central Idaho, according to Idaho Fish and Game statistics.

"Sockeye are amongst the most sensitive to mechanical or other disturbances," Fish and Game Director Virgil Moore said. "When they hit or get handled or netted, their scales come off. They're just much more sensitive."

Idaho Fish and Game launched conservation efforts and began raising sockeye in captivity at its Eagle Fish Hatchery. By 2010, it documented the return of 1,336 sockeye to Idaho. But numbers are still not adequate -- a minimum 2 percent return rate is needed to reach self-sustaining numbers, Moore said.

"We're achieving two-tenths, maybe four-tenths of a percentage of the return rate," he said. "We're still well below that 2 percent threshold that we need."

The Springfield Hatchery will raise sockeye to the smolt stage -- when the sockeye are ready to migrate to the ocean and transition to salt water. When the fish are released at that stage, their return rates are more successful, Moore said.

The hatchery is funded through the Bonneville Power Administration's $300 million yearly budget for fish mitigation, according to Lorri Bodi, vice

president of Environment, Fish and Wildlife for the Bonneville Power Administration. The power administration funded the project in an effort to mitigate some of the effects of the multiple hydro-electric dams located on the lower Columbia and Snake rivers. Bodi said the dams are responsible for a percentage of the fish that are killed during downstream migration to the ocean.

"There are multiple reasons why the sockeye were brought down," she said. "At least we're assuming responsibility for some of that decline due to the hydro system. This is mitigation for our part of the decline -- we want to see them return to more natural levels."

The hatchery will take in 250,000 eggs this fall

to be released in 18 months, Moore said. Officials

hope to produce up to 1 million juvenile sockeye by 2017.

Moore said he'd like to see the population grow over the next decade to eventually begin harvesting sockeye once again.

"This is just the first step," Moore said. "We're not done yet."