A sockeye salmon on Idaho's
Pettit Lake. (Photo by Rob Trahant)
The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes" years of effort
on the recovery plan is paying off
Let"s break a few journalism rules. I am writing about my own tribe.
It"s a subject I care deeply about, salmon recovery. And my brother
turns out to be one of my sources. Other than that, I can be objective.
But I am burying the lede: After two decades of litigation, mitigation
and field preparation, the sockeye salmon showed a promising return
this year to Idaho"s Pettit Lake near Stanley, Idaho.
The thing is, a lot of people have given up on the Snake River
sockeye. The challenges are enormous. Sockeye travel the farthest
of all Idaho salmon, a journey of more than 900 miles and climbing
more than 6,500 feet in elevation before they reach the Sawtooth
The fish are not as big (or as popular) as the king salmon or steelhead.
There"s not much in the way of sports fishing or commercial fishing.
Basically we"re talking about a salmon stepchild.
The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes have treaty rights to fish for salmon,
and because the sockeye is so rare, few people have seen one in
"It doesn"t get all the attention that the chinook, the king"s,
the big salmon and steelhead get," says Kurt Tardy, an anadromous
fisheries biologist for the Shoshone Bannock Tribes. One reason
is the states make zero from that species so there is not a lot
of reason to put money into recovery.
But it is an iconic fish. Idaho"s Redfish Lake is named for the sockeye,
"It's a species that it's important to the planet and important,
especially if you're a tribal member," Tardy said. "We haven't had
sockeye returned to Pettit Lake in over 30 years. So however you
draw the straw, you could have the short one or the long one, that's
success in itself. Bottom line, period, we actually have fish returning
from the ocean that have Pettit origin genes."
This is a big deal. If you read the headlines from Idaho and sockeye
there are lots of stories about the species" decline. "Will sockeye
salmon survive in Idaho?" asks the Idaho State Journal. One projected
run of 800 fish ended up at 27 fish. "The bottom line here is, among
other things, that the fish have a dam problem." That"s the eight
federal dams between the mountains of central Idaho and the Pacific
In 1999, the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes filed a petition with the National
Marine Fisheries Service to list the sockeye as an endangered species
in order to launch a recovery plan. The tribes have actively worked
since then on that restoration.
Robert Trahant has worked on the project since 1995. "So this is
remarkable for me to see progress after 20 years, 25 years."
"Rob has seen a slew of different things that the sockeye program
has done," Tardy said. "So he was at the beginning (and) instrumental
in egg releases. So first we used to do egg box releases."
Those produced several thousand small fish each year, but the few
made their way back to the spawning grounds from the ocean. And
no fish returned to Pettit Lake. That"s the challenge: Using the
best science to get fish past the dams and to create a new natural
cycle of migration with fish that have a Pettit Lake genetic mark.
"Ultimately moving forward is to regenerate, recreate, repopulate,
recolonize, a fish in this case, Sockeye that are specific to Pettit
Lake," Tardy says.
Much of the focus on Idaho"s sockeye is on Redfish Lake. But that
lake is overpopulated. And if the goal is eventually a tribal fishery
that would be "impossible" where there are so many people.
And Tardy said the sockeye plan is for healthy sockeye in Redfish,
Pettit and Alturas lakes.
"Pettit is kind of marked as the first non-Redfish Lake to receive
much of the attention," Tardy said. "Once Redfish is operational,
once Pettit is basically trending towards recovery, then we could
look to other lakes
that historically had sockeye salmon
This year"s return was a surprise. The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes
fishery team learned of the returning fish from Elizabeth Paul,
working with the Idaho Salmon Partnership. She sent word about a
"I hate to say it, but we did not know that at the time," Tardy
said. "Once we knew that there was one fish returning, we were able
to extrapolate. So basically on our tagging rate, knowing that one
is returning, we were able to extrapolate and we anticipated around
20 fish that would return to Pettit Lake. And science isn't always
so we ended up returning 38, which was very good,
"I probably will never be able to fish for a sockeye," Trahant
said. "Well, hopefully my kids will, my grandkids, and future families
will be able to have that fishery and that cultural aspect" of sockeye
Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, is editor of Indian Country Today.
On Twitter: @TrahantReports Trahant is based in Phoenix.