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Idaho sockeye salmon count exceeds expectations

BOISE, Idaho – This year might not be a record year for Idaho’s endangered sockeye salmon. But biologists with Idaho Fish and Game say the returning adult salmon count is already above expectations for the year. They get an idea of those numbers during the annual “Sockeye Roundup.”

Two dozen people drag a massive net that stretches across the clear waters of the Salmon River. They are helping round up dozens of red sockeye salmon that can’t make it back to Redfish Lake.

Mike Peterson gives the group instructions. He’s a biologist with Idaho Fish and Game. He heads up the preservation effort of sockeye here at the Sawtooth Hatchery. He’s got his wet suit and goggles on because on this day, he’s in the water to make sure that no sockeye escapes under the long net.

Peterson had predicted 1,000 sockeye would return to Idaho this year. That’s below the 1,355 that returned to Idaho from the Pacific Ocean last year.

Determining survival rates

“I would say we would like to bump our number up to 1,100. So we are going to be just under 2010 but survival rates vary from year to year when these fish migrate out as juveniles,” Peterson said.

The sockeye roundup is critical in figuring out those survival rates. Idaho Fish and Game hatcheries manager Jeff Heindel is one of the volunteers. He’s watched this event grow since it started in 2003.

“We always have a handful of Sockeye that swim 900 miles back to this structure and they just hang out below the weir. So it’s pretty easy to get a group of folks together and some long seines and we’re going to stretch that seine across the river, loop it around and I suspect that we are going to see 50 or 60 Sockeye,” Heindel said.

This week the endangered sockeye have exceeded Heindel’s prediction. Volunteers collected more than 130 returning adult sockeye in less than two hours.

The fish are pulled from the Salmon River in nets and plopped into large tanks mounted on truck beds. Heindel is pleased with the numbers, a feeling shared by most here who once thought sockeye might have been lost 20 years ago.

“These folks have spent their entire career working for the agency and have never seen or never held an anadromous Sockeye Salmon. This is pretty big,” Heindel said.

Roundup is not just for experts

It’s an indication that all the hard work is slowly paying off. John Respess and his wife are traveling the country from North Carolina. They were passing through Stanley and just happened upon the sockeye round up.

“The fact that they are so endangered and to see this many people working to try to save the fish is quite a moving experience,” Respess said.

Respess and his wife take photos they say they’ll share with their photography club back home.

“Even though these are not award winning photographs of course we’ve taken but it would be interesting to show our club and bring them to the awareness of what we’ve been made aware of in the last few days. Particularly today, seeing this,” Respess said.

But the Sockeye Roundup isn’t limited to tourists. Barbara Gudgel is one of the the 63 people who live in Stanley. She came out to watch the roundup and instead ended up helping out for the first time.

“I mean, how would we want to lose the bald eagle. How would we want to let that go extinct, we wouldn't right? I mean the same thing, we can’t let the Sockeye salmon go extinct,” Gudgel said.

Far cry from historical runs

These sockeye are measured, tagged and taken by truck to Redfish Lake to spawn naturally. They are part of a growing number of sockeye that biologists have let reproduce at the lake instead of at the Eagle Hatchery near Boise. The hatchery was an attempt to preserve the genetics of the dozen or so native sockeye back in the nineties who survived the 900 mile trip passed eight dams to Idaho’s lakes and rivers.

But these biologists know the 1,100 sockeye expected this year is still a fraction of the nearly 30,000 that once migrated back Redfish Lake each year.