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Instead of braving the river, these endangered salmon take the highway

Richard Read, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

After Stallcop let them know the fish was coming, they waited until they could see it, then opened a chute to let it into a tank of water spiked with anesthetic.

Once the fish stopped thrashing, Dan Baker, an Idaho state fisheries biologist, slid it into a rubber sleeve.

Clutching the specimen tight, another state biologist, John Powell, hurried down 21 steps and deposited it into a 400-gallon tank on the back of a 1-ton pickup.

Instead of taking the river, the sockeye would take the highway.

At nature's pace

In the days when only Native Americans inhabited the Northwest, tens of thousands of Snake River sockeye returned each summer to the lakes and streams where they had hatched in the foothills of the Sawtooth Range.

 

Navigating by smell and Earth's magnetic field, they gained more than a mile in altitude in the longest migration of any sockeye salmon in the world — an odyssey that ensured only the healthiest, strongest fish survived to reproduce.

Each spring, the sockeye smolt swam unimpeded to the sea for the cycle to begin anew.

Their troubles began with the rise of commercial fishing in the mid 19th century as Columbia River canneries packed massive amounts of fish.

In the 1920s, state game managers began stocking lakes with other species that competed with sockeye for food. Sometimes they dumped poison in a lake to kill all the fish, replacing them with trout prized for fly fishing.

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