BOISE, Idaho — Idaho fisheries biologists are getting ready to open the doors on a new $13.5 million hatchery they hope will bolster and help restore the population of endangered sockeye salmon.
The Springfield Hatchery is the latest byproduct of efforts in the last two decades by state, tribal and federal fisheries experts to prevent extinction of the fish. The formal dedication of the facility, located near the American Falls Reservoir in eastern Idaho is scheduled for Friday.
Once open, biologists project the hatchery will be capable of producing up to 1 million juvenile sockeye annually for release into the lakes of the Sawtooth Valley in central Idaho.
If all goes according to plan, the first batch of sockeye smolts could be released as early as 2015, with production increasing to 1 million by 2017 and ideally setting off the return of 10,000 adult sockeye to Idaho rivers and spawning areas as early as 2019.
“This gets us on a road to recovery,” Jeff Heindel, hatchery production coordinator for Idaho Department of Fish and Game, told The Idaho Statesman (http://bit.ly/14jNUXL).
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. The ultimate goal is to boost numbers of a fish protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1993, one year after 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 additional incubation and rearing space at the new hatchery will produce juveniles to be released each spring. Two years later, when the adults return, a portion of those will be allowed to spawn naturally or be transplanted to Alturus, Pettit and eventually Yellowbelly and Stanley lakes to spawn.
At the same time, biologists intend to take their time with recovery. For example, if too many hatchery fish are planted in the lakes, it could set back the program to preserve the genetic diversity of naturally spawning Snake River sockeye. So, if 10,000 fish eventually return, fishermen might one day be allowed to catch up to 5,000 “surplus” fish in Sawtooth lakes and rivers.
“We know that fish that are released to the lake naturally, their offspring survive at a much higher rate than those raised in a hatchery,” Heindel said.
That surplus could be the basis for a fishing season if the fish can be down-listed from endangered to threatened, which allows limited fishing by sportsmen and Indian tribes. Nez Perce tribal leaders also want Snake River sockeye replanted into Warm Lake near Cascade and Wallowa Lake in northeast Oregon, where they were extirpated long ago.
In the late 1800s, so many thousands of sockeye returned annually to Redfish Lake, which takes its name from the color of the sockeye, that a cannery was proposed. But dams along the river system that takes the fish to and from the ocean have significantly cut into the species numbers in the last 40 years.
Currently, sockeye are raised at hatcheries in Idaho, Oregon and Washington. The joint captive-breeding program between the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe, NOAA Fisheries, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, the Bonneville Power Administration and Idaho has brought the salmon back from the brink of extinction.
Although just 243 sockeye returned to the Sawtooth Valley in 2012, more than 650 sockeye had returned annually to the Sawtooth Valley since 2008.
That included 1,355 in 2010, the most since the four Snake River dams were built in Washington in the 1950s. This year the run remains down; just 185 had returned by last week with about a month of migration left.