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Sockeye salmon begin to return to Sawtooth Basin, this year's run looks promising

The 2019 sockeye run was lowest in more than a decade, but biologists are much more optimistic about 2020.
Credit: IDFG

STANLEY, Idaho — Biologists are optimistic after two sockeye salmon completed the long journey from the Pacific Ocean to the Sawtooth Basin this past week.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game reports the first sockeye, a naturally produced female, returned to Redfish Lake Creek trap near Stanley on July 31.  A second one arrived on August 2.

They are among the 412 sockeye that have crossed Lower Granite Dam through August 2 and signals a substantially larger return to Idaho than last year when only 17 sockeye completed the migration to the Sawtooth Basin. That was the lowest total in more than a decade.

This year's sockeye return appears to be slightly later than usual, and fisheries managers expect more fish will cross Lower Granite, which is the last dam the fish cross before reaching Idaho. 

Officials estimate that if no more fish crossed the dam, about 124 to 165 sockeye would return to the basin this year and likely surpass the last two year's returns.

The 2020 return over the dam is already the highest since 2016, when 816 fish were counted at the dam.

While dam counts are higher this year, the fish still have a long way to go before reaching the Sawtooth Basin, where they will be trapped and transported to the Eagle Hatchery. Some of those fish will be incorporated into the captive broodstock at the hatchery and the remaining fish will be released to Redfish Lake in mid-September to spawn naturally.

Fisheries managers were expecting an uptick in returns this year thanks to relatively cool water temperatures that benefit migrating fish and improvements to the way young sockeye were released into the Stanley Basin to migrate to the ocean. 

Sockeye salmon typically spend two years in the ocean before making the return journey to Idaho.

Sockeye returning to the Sawtooth Basin from the Pacific Ocean must complete a 900-mile migration though the Columbia, Snake and Salmon rivers that includes crossing eight dams and climbing 6,500-feet elevation.

When Idaho sockeye were listed in 1991 under the federal Endangered Species Act, only four adult sockeye returned to the Sawtooth Basin. The total number of sockeye that returned from 1991-99 was 23 fish, including two years when no sockeye returned.

Between 2010 to 2019, the annual sockeye return to the Sawtooth Basin averaged 558 fish, with annual returns ranging from 17 in 2019 to 1,579 in 2014.