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Sockeye salmon return to Idaho at near-record levels

Columbia River sockeye salmon
Columbia River sockeye salmon

Sockeye salmon are having a banner year as they make their way to high mountain streams in Idaho, posting one of their highest returns on record so far.

As of Aug. 4, nearly 2,070 sockeye passed through Lower Granite Dam, about 30 miles west of Lewiston.

That’s nearly three times the 10-year average at this point in the year and the third highest return since fish were first counted at the dam in 1975, according to Idaho Fish and Game. A handful have already made it to the Sawtooth Basin.

Mitch Cutter, who studies salmon and steelhead for the Idaho Conservation League, said it’s a good start.

“It sort of shows the resiliency of the fish and if you improve – even a little bit of – their habitat or their sort of migration pathway that they’ll respond immediately and they’ll respond in the way we want them to,” Cutter said.

But it’s not all good news.

Instead, Cutter said years like this when water temperatures in the ocean and rivers stay cooler longer will likely become rarer as climate change intensifies.

“The conditions that we’ve seen in the ocean, the conditions that we’ve seen in the Snake River and other tributaries to the [Columbia River] are kind of a one-off this year in a way that, at least, we don’t expect to continue,” he said.

Sockeye were listed under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1991 after abysmal returns to the Sawtooth Basin – including years where none made it.

The highest number of fish to return to the area in the past decade was nearly 1,600 in 2014, compared to a low of just 17 in 2019.

Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.

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I cover politics and a bit of everything else for Boise State Public Radio. Outside of public meetings, you can find me fly fishing, making cool things out of leather or watching the Seattle Mariners' latest rebuilding season. If you have a tip, please get in touch!