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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

By late morning, Powell and his team had dropped eight Snake River sockeyes into the tank bolted to the bed of the pickup.

Temperatures at the Lower Granite were climbing into the 90s. Water above 70 degrees quickly becomes lethal for sockeyes, so the race was on to keep the precious cargo cool.

Powell pulled another four buckets of ice from an office freezer and handed them up to Baker, who gently tipped them into the tank.

At 11:15 a.m., it was time to leave. They hoped to reach the Idaho hatchery by nightfall. It would be the first of several such trips planned for this summer.

Powell climbed into the passenger seat as Baker started the engine and steered out of the canyon through a series of switchbacks into tawny wheat fields that shimmered in the heat.

Watching the reception bars on his cellphone, Powell scrambled to call grocery stores and gas stations — anywhere along the route that might have ice.

Not just any ice would do. Chlorine, an additive in city water supplies, could kill the fish. Powell asked for the Frosty brand. The Spokane manufacturer got its water from a 200-foot-deep well.

Thirty miles into the trip, they pulled into a truck stop just before the Idaho border and dumped in an extra bag of ice they had stowed in the cab.

Road construction slowed the truck to a crawl as the temperature in the tank climbed. Powell called a gas station up the road in Winchester and was told to hurry.

He arrived too late. A sign out front said that ice was sold out.

"Are you the guy who called?" asked the woman at the cash register.

When Powell explained their predicament, she raided a private stash made from the owner's well water. It was only 30 pounds, but every bit helped.

Powell phoned the hatchery and asked his staff to call around. A co-worker called back: An Exxon station 40 miles up the road stocked Frosty.

Fifteen 10-pound bags would buy them some time. They added 10 to the tank and put the other five in the cab for later. At a nearby Subway, the men grabbed sandwiches and switched drivers before pushing on.

Water, ice and fish sloshed in back as the pickup rocked from side to side, rounding curves down the notorious 7% grade of White Bird Hill. Nearing the bottom, Powell and Baker could see the Salmon River — where the fish would have had to swim up rapids if they weren't in the truck.

In the town of Riggins, a rafting mecca deep in a canyon where sockeyes know to turn east , the dashboard's outdoor temperature gauge read 110.

It was getting close to 5 p.m. Baker was finding that businesses ahead in New Meadows, Mesa and Midvale got their ice from chlorinated city supplies in Oregon.

As the tank water reached 69 degrees, he called his father-in-law, who lived on a farm up ahead in Weiser, a well-known gateway to salmon fishing before dams went in.

Phil Ulmer dug 30 pounds of block ice out of his freezer.

It was past 9 p.m. when Powell and Baker pulled up at the hatchery in the Boise suburb of Eagle. They got out and peered into the tank.

All eight fish were alive.

Travis Brown, an assistant manager at the hatchery, pulled a hose to the pickup and slowly added well water to cool them down. The men netted the fish one by one and transferred them to a hatchery tank that looked like an above-ground swimming pool.

The water was a safe 55 degrees.

A solution?

Maybe nothing can save the Snake River sockeye.

 

But there is a dramatic step that has yet to be tried: tearing out dams. In February, 68 fisheries scientists wrote in an open letter to Northwest members of Congress, governors and policy makers that the four dams on the Snake River had to go.

"Breaching the four lower Snake River dams would provide more certainty of achieving long-term survival and recovery than would any other measure," the letter said.

It's a longtime goal of environmentalists, who for decades have tried to use the federal courts to achieve it.

The idea has never gained political traction because of powerful interests aligned against it. The dams generate power, control floods, provide irrigation and create a waterway for cruise ships, pleasure boats and barges that make up a massive industrial shipping operation.

In February, Mike Simpson, a Republican congressman from Idaho whose district includes the sockeye spawning grounds, appalled lawmakers in his party when he pitched a plan to let the Snake River run wild again.

He wants the federal government to spend $33.5 billion to remove the four dams, replace hydropower with other forms of energy, rework transportation and irrigation systems, compensate businesses and redevelop city waterfronts.

In an interview, he said that the federal Bonneville Power Administration, which sells electricity generated by the dams, has already put $17 billion toward fish and wildlife over the decades.

"I think you need to preserve those species that God has given us and not let them go extinct if there's a way of preventing that from happening," he said.

Critics called the plan expensive and extreme. Some dam proponents pointed out that other varieties of sockeye with far shorter migrations were still plentiful.

The Pacific Northwest Waterways Assn., which includes ports, barge companies, farmers and grain elevator operators, said that replacing fuel-efficient barges with trucks, trains and more miles of highway and rail would worsen the climate change that jeopardizes fish.

Simpson, who has yet to draft legislation, said a bill would be unlikely to pass if his party regained control of Congress. He said he was willing to take the political consequences.

"If I lose my election and we save salmon, I'm fine with that," he said.

Taking samples

The morning after the fish reached the hatchery, Powell joined Brown and Baker — both of whom live there with their families — to check on them.

Brown netted one of the sockeyes, deposited it in a tray and scanned it with an electronic wand — checking for a microchip injected in fish previously handled by researchers.

Finding none, he weighed and measured the fish and gently pressed an ultrasound transducer against its underside, seeing from the presence of ovaries that it was a female.

Seven of the eight sockeyes were missing their adipose fins, indicating that they had originated in hatcheries, which remove the fins before releasing smolt into the wild.

The lone wild fish was a 24.5-inch male weighing 4.5 pounds. With tweezers, Brown removed three of its scales: they contained annual markings that would be examined under a microscope to determine its age.

Then he used scissors to snip off a tiny section of a rear fin, placing it in a plastic bag. Genetic analysis would determine its origin, down to a specific lake.

If lab tests found the fish to be healthy, its sperm would be combined in vitro with eggs from wild females. Smolt from the fertilized eggs would be raised at a hatchery 250 miles east in Springfield.

Brown gripped the slippery specimen, punching a hole in its dorsal fin and attaching a zip tie bearing a microchip. Nudging it back into the net, he lowered it into another hatchery tank.

Sockeye No. 3DD.003D45155E was ready to become a father.

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