Lonesome Larry's legacy lives on in sockeye runs

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Sockeye entered the Columbia River this week, beginning a 900-mile migration that very nearly ended 20 years ago.

Only four Snake River sockeye made their way through eight dams and past nets and predators in 1992, a year after the fish that makes its home in Idaho’s Sawtooth Valley was listed as endangered. Only one male completed the final climb up the Snake and Salmon rivers to a weir on Redfish Lake Creek Aug. 4.

Allyson Coonts, the 7-year-old daughter of Sawtooth Hatchery technician Phil Coonts, named the sockeye Lonesome Larry. When then-Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus put the stuffed fish on his office wall, Lonesome Larry became the symbol of the entire Snake and Columbia salmon restoration program.

“What took it national was an Andrus interview with New York Times reporter Tim Egan,” said Andy Brunelle, who was Andrus’ natural resources policy staffer.

In the early 1990s, it looked grim for all of the salmon and steelhead species left after 150 years of overfishing, dam-building, habitat destruction and even poisoning. The Snake River sockeye effort appeared especially quixotic.

Today, threats such as warming waters and ocean acidification still threaten the future of the Columbia’s salmon. But improved ocean conditions, court-ordered upgrading of migration conditions through the dams and other changes have dramatically increased the returns of all salmon.

No turnaround is more amazing than that of Idaho’s Snake River sockeye. Since 2008, more than 650 sockeye have returned annually to the Sawtooth Valley, peaking in 2010 with 1,355, the most since the 1950s, before four dams were built in Washington.

This year biologists predict 1,000 could return, and productivity of the natural fish that spawn in Redfish has increased to a point that they are replacing themselves, said Mike Peterson, an Idaho Department of Fish and Game research biologist.

This reversal could not have happened without the work of a coalition of federal, state and tribal teams throughout the Northwest. But it also needed the broad bipartisan support that came in part because of the story of Lonesome Larry.

He, along with 15 other sockeye that returned the year before and in the next two years, held the valuable genetic code of the southern-most sockeye population, which is able to travel more than 800 miles and climb to 6,500 feet above sea level.

Federal, state and tribal biologists had decided to collect the remaining Redfish Lake sockeye and begin a last-ditch captive breeding program to preserve the stock and prevent extinction.

Sockeye returns had dropped to double and single digits in the 1980s. Idaho Fish and Game had purposely poisoned sockeye and its cousin the kokanee out of Alturas, Pettit and Yellow Belly lakes in the Sawtooths in the 1960s to replace them with trout. Yellow Belly was poisoned again in 1990 to allow a trophy cutthroat fishery.

Attempts in the 1970s to replant sockeye in the lakes failed miserably. When Keith Johnson arrived at Idaho’s Department of Fish and Game in 1988 from Alaska, hatchery programs were viewed largely as raising fish for anglers to catch. He was swimming against the current of thinking at the time.

“There was a different philosophy about hatcheries then,” said Johnson, a fish pathologist and researcher.

Idaho Rivers United, a salmon advocacy group, was pushing biologists to leave the fish alone. Bumper stickers simplified it to “wild sex for wild fish.”

Today, Idaho Rivers is kicking off a season-long campaign to celebrate the story of Lonesome Larry and the success of the captive breeding program.

“This is one of the epic nature stories of our time,” said Greg Stahl, an Idaho Rivers spokesman. “At the same time natural returns of sockeye are still only in the hundreds instead of the thousands we need.”

Allyson Coonts was one of a generation of Idahoans who grew up with salmon as part of their life. After the last dam was built in 1975, salmon numbers tumbled in Idaho, fishing seasons closed, and the ocean-going fish were almost forgotten by all but the state’s Indian tribes.

But after the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe petitioned the federal government to list Snake River sockeye under the Endangered Species Act, the fish returned to the consciousness of Idahoans. As a first-grader, Coonts wrote about two sockeye coming back from the ocean to spawn at home.

Now 28 and a medical school student in Portland, Coonts remembers going to sockeye vigils at Redfish Lake and writing a letter to President Bill Clinton asking him to do something about the dams.

“He wrote me a nice letter back,” she said.

She remembers releasing some of the first adult sockeye raised in the captive breeding program into Redfish Lake with Andrus and actress Jamie Lee Curtis. “She told me I reminded her of her daughter,” Coonts said.

She was picked to release the fish, her father said, because she named Larry. Today she doesn’t remember that. But both her father and Johnson remember it as if it were yesterday.

Lonesome Larry’s contribution to sockeye recovery lives on in more than just his story. Had he been a female, biologists might have simply released her into Redfish because they had little sperm available.

But since he was a male, they were able to inject a hormone pellet into him after the first milking process so that he produced sperm for nearly a month. They then split the supply and sent some to the University of Idaho and Washington State University in straws that were frozen with liquid nitrogen and cryogenically stored.

“We always maintained the philosophy of spreading the risk,” Johnson said.

That allowed biologists to use Larry’s sperm on thousands of eggs in 1996 and 1997, spreading his genes throughout a population that is becoming more genetically diverse with every generation. Today about 6 percent of the Redfish sockeye population has Lonesome Larry genes.

In addition, the teams of scientists and technicians who worked on the project made sure they had disease-free water sources, used iodine liberally during the spawning process of milking and mixing the sperm and eggs to prevent passing disease to the progeny, and raised small groups of sockeye instead of entire raceways full.

That required several state and federal hatcheries and also an expansion of the Eagle Hatchery, which is the center of the program today. But when it was up for funding in 2006, an independent science group recommended to the Northwest Power Planning Council that it turn down the request because of the low productivity of the population, which it attributed to the lack of genetic diversity.

Jim Risch, now a U.S. senator, had just been appointed governor and he had the power to sway the council.

“I said don’t pull the plug,” Risch said. “Sometimes you have to temper (the science).”

Later that spring, as Boise River floodwaters threatened to inundate the hatchery and kill thousands of sockeye, Risch rebuilt a structure to hold back the water over the objections of federal regulators.

“I told them if you want to arrest anyone you know where you can find me,” Risch said.

The scientific consensus has shifted, in part because many more sockeye have been brought into the genetic mix. A residual population of sockeye, distinct from the kokanee, was discovered not only in Redfish but also possibly in Alturas.

And as the numbers have risen, mortality through the rivers and in the Pacific has dropped. The increased number of smolts that leave the Sawtooth Basin, 150,000 to 200,000 from hatcheries and the lakes, reduces the percentage that are killed by predators and turbines.

“It comes down to safety in numbers,” said Peterson, Fish and Game’s research biologist.

05/25/2012 - 7:06am