How to Save Salmon from Dying in Idaho Rivers

A step-by-step guide to protecting the endangered sockeye


First, you scoop the sockeye salmon from its holding tank, then toss the fish into an anesthetic bath. The salmon splashes around for about 90 seconds before the chemical-laced water sedates the fish. If you leave your hands in for too long, you might even feel the tingle yourself. The fish is then weighed, measured and given a shot of antibiotics before the corner of its fin is clipped for genetic sampling.

That's the step-by-step process at the Eagle Fish Hatchery, where the Idaho Department of Fish and Game has been collecting sockeye salmon in danger of dying as Idaho's streams and rivers rise to dangerously high temperatures. The iconic bright-red fish are considered an endangered species in the Gem State.

As of Aug. 4, Fish and Game had trapped 47 sockeye on the Snake River at the Lower Granite Dam—an eight-and-a-half-hour drive from the hatchery. One team catches the salmon and drives them to Grangeville, then another team swaps trucks and drives the fish the rest of the way to the Treasure Valley.

Those salmon will wait until early September, when Fish and Game will truck them to their natural spawning grounds at Redfish Lake.

"This saves them half the journey [to Redfish Lake]," said Mike Peterson, a biologist at Fish and Game who has overseen the captive salmon breeding program for almost a decade. "It saves them 425 miles and 5,500 feet of elevation. These fish definitely got a boost."

Fish biologists throughout the region noticed something was seriously wrong with the Pacific Northwest salmon population after this summer's heat spell brought water temperatures to almost 80 degrees. Between 50 and 90 percent of the migrating salmon are expected to die this season.

Peterson said it's still too soon to tell how few salmon will return to Redfish Lake.

For Greg Stahl, the news is distressing but not particularly surprising. As the salmon campaign coordinator for Idaho Rivers United, he works to raise awareness of the endangered fish and keep them from the brink of extinction.

"This is a disaster, and it's a pretty enormous disaster," Stahl said. "But it's a predictable one."

Stahl said one reason the region's rivers are so unusually hot this year is because there's little to no snowpack. He said another part of the problem comes from the eight dams salmon must cross while traveling 900 miles.

"Salmon would have struggled this year even if there were no dams on the rivers and no Europeans ever stepped foot on the continent, but dams help heat the water further," said Stahl. "It's a stagnant tank of water that has more surface area hit by the sun."

As wildlife managers scramble to save the salmon, they fear this is the new normal.

Peterson hopes not.

"I'm hoping this year is a fluke, one of those 100-year events and it's something that may be changed down the road," Peterson said. "I don't know what we're going to see in the future. I don't like to think about it."

Even if every salmon died on its migration to the spawning grounds this year, the species would be OK. Fish and Game has a complex, diverse population of almost 3,200 sockeye salmon living at the Eagle hatchery.

Peterson said these fish are exceptional because even though they've never been outside of their large gray tanks, when put into a natural environment they find their way to the same spawning ground as wild salmon.

Stahl is pretty impressed by the fish, as well.

"The beauty of the salmon is they evolved to overcome these kinds of hurdles," he said.

Trapping at the Lower Granite Dam will continue through Aug. 5, when fish migration slows. While only 47 have been trapped, another 400 salmon have made their way past the dam and will hopefully make it to Redfish Lake within the next 30 days.