• ‚ÄčHatchery Program Bolsters Snake River Sockeye Success

    To find out about the science behind the Snake River Sockeye Hatchery Program, go to Northwest Fisheries Science Center story here

    November 2015: It was a tough year for Snake River sockeye. On track for a record year as an estimated 4,000 fish crossed Bonneville Dam, almost all of them died in the warm water and low flows throughout the Columbia River basin in June and July. Only 50 made it all the way to Redfish Lake Creek in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. Another 50 or so were trapped and hauled from Lower Granite Dam.

    There is good news, though. Using the returning fish as well as fish that were raised in captivity, the Snake River Sockeye Captive Broodstock program was able to spawn 1,500 fish. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game estimates that the spawning, completed in early November, will yield approximately 800,000 Snake River sockeye smolts that can be released in May 2017 to migrate to the ocean.

    In addition, in early November  IDFG released almost 600 adult hatchery fish into Redfish and Pettit Lakes to spawn naturally.

    Hatchery managers say that the captive fish were critical this year when most sockeye returning from the ocean died before reaching their natural spawning grounds.

    "That's the reason we have them," said Hatchery Manager Dan Baker. "It's natural you're going to have good and bad years for migration conditions."

    November 2014: A record number of Snake River sockeye returned to Redfish Lake this year, swimming 900 miles from the ocean to Idaho's Stanley Basin. At 1,554 fish, this is the biggest return since the sockeye were listed in 1991. The previous record of 1,322 was set in 2010. More and more of the returning Snake River sockeye were born in the wild.  


    Snake River sockeye returns finally started trending up six years ago after years of scientifically-managed hatchery operations. The goal of the Snake River Sockeye Captive Broodstock Program was to carefully identify and preserve as much of the species’ original genetic material as possible. Genetic diversity, say hatchery managers, is key to a species’ resilience and ability to survive and reproduce naturally.

    Then, in 2010, wild fish started returning. As Idaho Department of Fish and Game fishery biologist Mike Peterson explains, these naturally-produced adult fish help fill in the genetic diversity puzzle. “These fish have shown that they have the fitness to be born in the lake, travel to the ocean and return,” Peterson says. “They are exposed to additional natural selection pressures that fish that were born in the hatchery are not.”

    Snake River sockeye abundance, date of ESA listing to present. Abundance is the measure of the number of adult fish born in the wild that return to a specific reach to spawn.         


    With facilities in Eagle, Idaho; Port Orchard and Burley, Wash.; Cascade Locks, Ore., and near Redfish Lake, the program raises and releases smolts ready to migrate (into Redfish Lake Creek) and adults ready to spawn (into Redfish Lake). Managers evaluate the success of each strategy by the percentage of fish that return as adults. While the progeny of natural fish are slightly more likely to return as adults, Peterson says, smolts raised in the hatchery and released directly into the creek have also been successful.


    A new Snake River sockeye hatchery, completed in 2013, rounds out the current success. The Springfield Hatchery will open space so the program can increase smolt production from the current 200,000 to between 500,000 to 1 million – a requirement specified in the latest Biological Opinion for the Federal Columbia River Power System as a way to continue to protect this species. 



    Snake River sockeye travel more than 900 miles and 6,000 feet in elevation and cross eight dams to reach their spawning grounds in Idaho's Redfish Lake.


    Wild Snake River sockeye will return to their natal Redfish Lake, above, to spawn.  


  • See Snake River sockeye in Redfish Lake - 2014