Redfish Lake

Under the jagged outline of the Sawtooth Mountains and some 900 river miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, Redfish Lake is the historical beginning and end for the Idaho sockeye salmon. Named Redfish Lake by early trappers for the distinctive red color of sockeyes, the lake has played an important role in the lifecycle of countless sockeye for thousands of years. That is, until seventy years ago, when the first of eight major hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers was constructed.

The natural range for sockeye is the "Ring of Fire" (no, not the "ring of fire" y'all suffer the morning after eating a tall pile of mango habanero wings at Buffalo Wild Wings). We're referring to the volcano-dotted zone of the north Pacific Ocean which arcs from northern California to northern Japan. Sockeye spawn only in streams with lakes in their watershed, where they spend three years maturing before heading out to sea. The next one to four years are spent in ocean waters eating nothing but delicious plankton, a feature unique only to sockeye and the speculated reason for their striking red hue. When they migrate back to their ancestral spawning beds, biologists believe they smell the path to their place of origin. Somehow, this honed sense can distinguish the many tributaries which pour into the Columbia and Snake river system.

The dams changed this timeless cycle forever. Most young fish are pulverized as they pass through massive electric-producing turbines. Provided they get past eight major dams and survive ocean life, the few fish that have made it to this point (1 out of 1,ooo), will begin to return home. At the base of the dams, where the fish congregate before entering fish ladders, California sea lions prey on the sockeyes like fraternity boys in front of a freshmen girls dorm. Atop each dam, the rivers widen and deepen and the current slows, making upstream navigation more difficult. After construction on each dam was completed, the sockeye numbers dropped more and more. Before the dams, 35,000 fish were estimated to return to Redfish Lake. By 1955, the number was down to 4,000. In 1992, one bachelor male, nicknamed "Lonesome Larry" returned. Unfortunately, without a bed of eggs to fertilize, his presence made little difference.

Attempts to remedy the situation have been on-going since the 1970's. Millions of dollars have been spent studying the effect of dams on sockeye, with one reccuring conclusion: dams are bad for sockeye. Millions of dollars have been spent producing eggs and raising fry in hatcheries (as seen here at the Sawtooth Fish Hatchery). Millions of dollars have been spent barging and trucking young fish around the dams for release into the lower Columbia River. Upon getting dumped into the flaccid river, they swim around and around in clouds of their own feces; clueless oncorhynchus nerka retards without any survival instincts or sense of direction.

As a result of the dams, Seattle and Portland enjoy the lowest electrical rates in the country. As a result of the dams, grain barges can travel 600 miles inland and Lewiston, Idaho is now a seaport. As a result of the dams, irrigation projects have converted hundreds of thousands of acres of arid land in Washington and Oregon into wheat and potato farms. To many, these are good things. Water flows uphill towards money and power, always has, always will. For the Idaho sockeye, the benefits have been devastating.

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