How can we fish for chinook salmon this spring when Idaho salmon are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act?
A number of residents have posed this to Fish and Game since a fishing season for chinook was announced last month. The answer is that not all Idaho chinook salmon are "listed" under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
We fish only for "unlisted", hatchery-produced salmon and we only allow salmon fishing when there are enough adult salmon to meet hatchery and conservation needs first. The salmon we fish for are surplus to the needs of hatchery and conservation programs and cannot be used for recovery efforts. In addition, salmon fisheries must be conducted so that listed salmon are protected. We do this by limiting the time, place, and possibly the number of hatchery fish harvested.
The decision whether to list Idaho's chinook salmon runs (populations) under the ESA was based on the origin of the fish and their ability to contribute to the recovery of native runs. Only the native wild chinook and some hatchery-produced chinook of native origin in the Salmon River drainage are listed as threatened (not endangered). Hatchery and naturally produced spring chinook in the Clearwater River and hatchery fish produced by the Rapid River Hatchery for the Little Salmon River fishery were not listed because they were derived from non-native stocks. Non-native stocks were used in the Clearwater because Lewiston Dam, which stood from 1923 to 1973, eliminated the wild run. The Rapid River Hatchery program was started from non-native stocks as mitigation for salmon runs eliminated by the Hells Canyon Dams.
These non-native stocks are not considered essential for recovery because they are genetically and ecologically different from the native stocks.
Hatchery fish, in general, even when derived from native stocks, are less able than wild fish to reproduce in the wild and contribute to self-sustaining, naturally reproducing populations.
All of Idaho's salmon and steelhead hatcheries were built to replace fishing opportunities lost to the construction and operation of hydropower dams. The original and only intent of the hatchery programs was to produce salmon and steelhead for anglers.
Two hatchery mitigation programs exist in Idaho. The Idaho Power Company funds hatcheries as mitigation for construction of the three dams on the Snake River on the Idaho/Oregon border (Brownlee, Oxbow, and Hells Canyon). The federal government, through the Lower Snake River Compensation Plan, funds hatchery programs in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington as mitigation for losses caused by the four lower Snake River dams in Washington (Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite).
The continued decline of wild salmon (and steelhead) runs as the result of dams has forced the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and other agencies and Tribes in the Snake River basin to explore the possibility of using hatchery programs to preserve or restore native runs. These attempts have not been successful.
Why don't we just use the salmon to fill up vacant habitat?
Genetics and ecological characteristics play a big role in where hatchery fish can be used "safely" and effectively. Salmon have been in Idaho for at least 10,000 years. During that time, our salmon have become locally adapted to the various environmental conditions specific to the rivers they inhabit. The result is that different salmon populations (stocks) have unique characteristics such as spawn timing and location, migration distance, and developmental schedule (hatching, growth, and migration timing).
Because of the diversity of habitat in Idaho, Idaho has one of the most diverse groupings of salmon in the Columbia Basin. These wild native stocks are vital to recovery of salmon populations. Therefore it is imperative that we protect the unique characteristics of wild native fish. Mixing hatchery and wild fish can dilute the genetic character and fitness of wild stocks. It is possible to "swamp" wild populations with hatchery fish. For these reasons we are cautious in our use of hatchery fish where wild populations are involved. We are using hatchery salmon for conservation purposes in as many areas as possible.
Hatcheries have existed in the Columbia Basin for about 100 years. In general, hatchery fish have not been successful in restoring self-sustaining, naturally reproducing runs. More recently, hatchery fish of native origin have been used in tightly controlled experiments to determine if they can enhance or "supplement" naturally spawning populations. These "supplementation" experiments have been going on in Idaho for about 10 years. It does not appear that supplementation has been effective. Poor survival of young salmon and steelhead associated with the dams in the lower Snake River remains the primary obstacle for recovery of Idaho's naturally spawning populations.
Why are these hatchery fish in surplus? Are there surplus wild fish this year?
Most of the hatchery fish available for harvest in 2000 migrated to the ocean in 1998. These are the progeny of hatchery fish that returned and were spawned in 1996.
A combination of good smolt migration conditions in 1998 (high natural flows and spill at the dams) and improving ocean conditions for smolts reaching the ocean resulted in good smolt-to-adult survival. This is a familiar pattern for Idaho's salmon and steelhead; when natural runoff is high, smolt-to-adult survival rates improve resulting in improved adult returns. These same runoff conditions produced relatively good adult returns in the mid-1980s. Almost four million chinook salmon smolts were released from Idaho hatcheries in 1998. Although, this is only about half of the number of smolt released in 1995, the release responsible for the 1997 fisheries, survival of the 1998 smolts appears good enough to produce enough hatchery adults to support a fishery.
Although Idaho's wild salmon will also benefit from good migration and ocean conditions, all wild populations remain at dangerously low levels. It will take consistent survival improvement to put our wild fish on the road to recovery.
Will there be a salmon season next year?
We expect returns from the 1998 and 1999 smolt outmigrations will provide enough hatchery adults to support a fishery in 2001. It is still too early to predict what the extent of the 2001 fishery might be.
Comment can be provided to IDFG via regular mail, e-mail, or phone. The same goes for just getting answers to questions about salmon! Department regional offices will also have information on this issue.
Regular mail: Salmon Seasons, IDFG, P.O. Box 25, Boise, Idaho, 83707.
Phone: (208) 334-3791, ask for Sharon Kiefer or another salmon biologist.