New hatchery will boost production of iconic Snake River sockeye salmon

The Council has recommended construction of a new hatchery to boost production of Snake River sockeye salmon, an endangered species, and continue a long-term effort to rebuild the population to naturally spawning, self-sustaining levels.

The $13.5 million hatchery will be built near the southeastern Idaho city of Springfield and will be funded by the Bonneville Power Administration as part of its obligation to mitigate the impact of hydropower dams on salmon.

"With this production facility we are building on our success to date in restoring these unique and valuable fish to Idaho," Idaho Council member Bill Booth said. "This is an important step for our state and for the Northwest, as we are showing how a species on the brink of extinction can be restored through the dedication and collaboration of state, federal, and tribal scientists and policy-makers."

When completed in 2013, the new facility will be operated by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) and will be capable of producing up to 1 million juvenile sockeye annually for release in the Sawtooth Basin of central Idaho, the headwaters of the Salmon River. Snake River sockeye are unique in that they are the southernmost of their species, and they spawn farther from the ocean – more than 900 miles – and at higher elevation – more than 6,000 feet above sea level – than any other.

Snake River sockeye were listed as an endangered species in 1991. IDFG initiated conservation and research projects for sockeye that same year. Just a few years later the number of adult sockeye returning from the ocean to the Sawtooth Basin dropped to zero in 1995 and 1997, but reached 1,336 in 2010, an amount not seen since the 1950s.

This success resulted from redundant captive broodstock programs operated at hatcheries in Idaho and Washington. Today the sockeye are produced at hatcheries in Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. The Springfield Hatchery will provide additional incubation and rearing space so that the program can grow beyond the conservation phase and transition to a re-colonization phase where emphasis will be placed on returning increased numbers of ocean-run adults to use in hatchery spawning plans and to release for natural spawning. Snake River sockeye rearing and spawning habitat in the Sawtooth Basin is considered to be in excellent condition because it has experienced limited human impacts.

The current run of sockeye into the Snake River is one of three remaining populations in the Columbia River Basin. The other two populations are in Okanogan and Wenatchee lakes, which are located on tributaries of the Columbia River in north-central Washington.

The new hatchery is a component of the proposed Snake River Sockeye Salmon Recovery Strategy submitted by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to NOAA Fisheries, which implements the Endangered Species Act for salmon. NOAA’s recovery plan for Snake River sockeye is anticipated in early 2014.

The IDFG strategy recommends incorporating hatchery facilities, captive broodstock technology, genetic support, and a comprehensive monitoring and evaluation plan to maintain the current population and rebuild the number of naturally produced anadromous sockeye in the basin. The agency’s goal is to re-establish a natural population that can be de-listed and even provide treaty and sport harvest opportunities.