Editor’s note: This posting was authored by Pat Ford. Many years ago, Pat served as the executive director of ICL. Most recently, he was the executive director for Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition. Pat lives in Boise, Idaho, and periodically contributes to the ICL blog.
I remember urgency in Idaho in 1992, when one sockeye salmon returned from the ocean to Redfish Lake. He became "Lonesome Larry." Led by Cecil Andrus, many worked to make him a poster fish for endangered salmon.
It was personal for me. I knew that male could find no female. It was happening in a Sawtooth glacier moraine lake I was life-bonded to, here at my feet, in my home. It was to be the end of an extraordinarily and very precisely adapted and successful species, and partly by my own hands, as a consumer of low-cost energy. I know others experienced variations of the same reaction.
24 years later, urgency for Idaho’s Red Fish has changed, but not abated.
The captive rearing of Snake River sockeye-the emergency room hatchery program begun in the ,90s-has delivered the gene line, rescuing Idaho sockeye from extinction and expanding its genetic diversity. But the rescue is temporary and ever more fragile, and the diversity largely exists in the hatchery only. Two changes in the dam gauntlet downstream-spring and summer salmon spill, and a step up in passage technology-have improved juvenile sockeye survival through it. But not enough. And now climate change, also human-caused and in interplay with dams and reservoirs, is building steadily hotter and more lethal water conditions in the Columbia and Snake rivers.
In popular perception, Idaho’s sockeye are much better off now than when only one returned in 1992. Having the gene line conserved is crucial to restoring the sockeye ecologically. But in 2015 only 11 naturally spawned sockeye-born and reared in the lakes, not in the hatchery-returned from the ocean. In 2016, 33 returned. Ecologically-in their and their lakes’ lives, as well as in ours-today’s sockeye are not that far from Lonesome Larry.
Sockeye migrate home in summer. In 2015, hot water in the Columbia and Snake killed 97%-plus of them before they reached Idaho. Water temperatures stayed at 70 F or above for two months in 200 miles of reservoirs. That’s the catastrophic case, which will repeat. Its twin is chronic hot water, rising for 40 years with further rise to come, paring the already-thin margins still thinner for an endangered summer-migrating cold-water fish bound 850 miles through eight dams and eight reservoirs.
Adult sockeye now swim in 68 degrees F or higher in the Columbia-Snake reservoir chain for most days each summer. They swim in 70 F or hotter many days. A temperature of 68 F depletes them as well as the fitness of the eggs and sperm they carry. 70 F, when prolonged, kills them. Temperatures will soon reach 70 F on most summer days, and 71 F on many. Reservoirs offer few places to hide from heat. It’s a grim equation, to which I could add more terms.
Now U.S. District Judge Michael Simon has ruled the official federal plan for sockeye and other ESA-listed salmon illegal, and ordered two processes. As a result, federal dam agencies will analyze major changes to those dams and reservoirs, and NOAA Fisheries will project likely climate change effects on Columbia-Snake salmon over the next few decades, and propose responses. Both processes are too slow-how much death will hot water deal sockeye in the four summers before the dam EIS is finished? But if Idahoans don’t force Snake River sockeye onto the agendas of these agencies, and of elected leaders, I think that soon they will exist in only two hatcheries. The time to exert some popular force begins in October-next month-in a three-month public scoping period for the EIS.
Given the march of hot water in the two migratory rivers, can sockeye still be restored in their habitat? No one knows. Climate change effects are not predictable that way, for any species. With caveats, most scientists I’ve talked with bet yes for two reasons. First, what people must do for sockeye is pretty clear, with restoring the lower Snake a core step but not all that is needed. Second, we can trust what sockeye will do for themselves if given healthier rivers. Science and long tradition agree we can have faith in salmon.
The caveats apply to many species-changes in their ocean habitats could be so adverse as to swamp any good done in freshwater. And, if greenhouse gas accumulation does not stop soon enough, sockeye will reach physiological heat limits no matter what we or they do. Neither is a reason to ease off pushing to restore sockeye. As the Columbia Basin salmon species at sharpest immediate risk from climate change, Snake River sockeye are the preview of what other fish, wildlife, water and people also face, a bit more slowly.
A quarter century ago, Cecil Andrus and the Northwesterners he rallied made Snake River sockeye an Idaho icon. Thanks to that work in public persuasion, science, and law, the highest- and farthest-migrating sockeye salmon on earth still exists today. Now Idahoans will choose again. If we want sockeye in lakes and rivers and our lives, we have urgent work to do.