November 20, 2021, marked a grim occasion. Thirty years earlier, in 1991, the federal government decided to list Snake River sockeye salmon under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), granting them protections after decades of steep declines in their population. Since then, federal, state, and Tribal agencies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to protect these fish and restore them to abundance.
The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of Eastern Idaho, who petitioned the government to list sockeye, are central to this story Shoshone-Bannock fish biologists have also been key to recovery efforts through restoring habitat and reintroducing sockeye into Pettit Lake. These efforts have made the population more secure, but the number of wild fish returning to Idaho has not changed: 4 in 1991 and 4 again in 2021.
To observe the anniversary of the listing of sockeye salmon, honor the work of the Tribes, and call for bold action to recover salmon, we joined with our allies and Tribal representatives at the Idaho State Capitol for a vigil. Nearly 200 people gathered to hear members from the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes speak about the importance of sockeye, the dire straits they’re in, and what’s needed to save them: breaching the lower Snake River dams.
Sockeye have particular importance to the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Since time immemorial, Tribal members have harvested sockeye and other salmon to preserve through the winter, when other food is scarce. Now, sockeye are scarce, and it is illegal to fish for them. Tribal Councilman Nathan Small expressed frustration about the lack of change since the fish were listed: “When we started getting serious about listing them under the endangered species list, we thought that was going to start helping. We thought that was going to start doing something… When you used to harvest hundreds of thousands of fish, and you’re down to fifteen, ten, five, that’s how much loss has gone on here.”
The losses will continue unless significant action is taken. Thirty years of ESA listing has not moved these fish closer to recovery. Thirty years of habitat restoration has not reduced the existential threat of extinction. In 2015, 99% of migrating sockeye perished, cooking in the hot reservoir water behind the lower Snake River dams. This year, similar conditions forced fish managers to take fish out of the river, transporting them by truck back to Idaho. Sockeye are on life support: they wouldn’t exist without the heroic efforts of the Tribes and State of Idaho, but simply continuing these efforts won’t bring them back to abundance.
Summarizing the purpose of the event, ICL Executive Director Justin Hayes spoke to this pivotal moment: “The time is now for bold actions, the time is now to remove the four dams on the lower Snake River, the time is now for salmon, the time is now for orca, and the time is now for Tribal justice. And make no mistake, at its very core, the loss of salmon is a Tribal justice issue.
Take action for Idaho’s sockeye salmon today! Let Northwest leaders know that the time is now for Tribal justice and real salmon restoration.