What Happened to the Red Fish of Redfish Lake?

Over the past several decades, Redfish Lake has become an incredibly popular summer destination for camping, boating, fishing, and simply spending time with family. But have you ever stopped to wonder what this environment looked like before humans reigned supreme?

A view from the shore of Redfish Lake in Stanley, Idaho

Redfish Lake was formed by thousands of years of glaciation. It’s one of the largest alpine lakes on the eastern side of the Sawtooth Mountains, extending for five miles and reaching depths of nearly four hundred feet. Nestled among pristine forests and alpine ecosystems, Redfish Lake has historically been a haven for the sockeye salmon.

The sockeye salmon is an anadromous species of fish, meaning that they are born and reproduce in freshwater, but they migrate to the ocean where they spend most their adult life. When the sockeyes return to their freshwater homes to reproduce, they turn bright red and grow an aesthetically unpleasing hump-back.

An adult sockeye salmon ready to spawn.

As recently at 150 years ago, the sockeye salmon were so abundant in Redfish Lake, that the entire lake would look bright red. Moreover, the sockeyes would keep ranchers up all night with their loud splishy-splashy swimming as they traveled up the Salmon River. But today, Redfish Lake is a crystal-clear blue all summer and the riverbanks of the Salmon remains quiet and peaceful. In 2019, only 18 sockeye salmon returned to Redfish Lake.

So, what happened to the sockeye salmon?  To put it simply, human industrialism.

The decline of the sockeye salmon population began in the mid-to-late 1800s with the introduction of commercial fishing and resource extraction in Central Idaho. Commercial canneries came into the Sawtooth Valley and fished salmon to the brink of extinction. Meanwhile, mining, logging, and ranching operations degraded habitat and decreased sockeye populations. By 1888, salmon populations were so low that Idaho’s first fish hatchery was developed to keep the canning companies in business. By the end of the century, Idahoans were already keenly aware that salmon populations were in terrible shape.

Custer a ghost mining town in Central Idaho still stands today.

Today, the sockeye salmon must navigate a whole different set of obstacles as they migrate to and from Redfish Lake. To be specific, they have eight very tall obstacles. The eight dams along the Columbia and Snake rivers are one of the most significant hurdles for the sockeye salmon today. These dams have turned 900 miles of cold, nutrient-rich, and fast-moving river into a collection of warm and muddy reservoirs. This slow-moving water makes it more difficult for the juvenile salmon to reach the ocean. The 900-mile journey used to take about three weeks, now it takes two to three months! That means more time that these fish can die due to predation, disease, and overheating.  

The journey is not so easy for the adult fish either. Our development of infrastructure to help fish pass dams has not been particularly successful. For example, fish ladders have led to more bird predation throughout the Pacific Northwest. Furthermore, fish hatcheries have struggled to improve salmon populations, likely because juvenile salmon raised in concrete bins tend to lack the competencies required to survive in the wild.

People fishing next to Bonneville Dam, one of the largest of the eight dams that the sockeye salmon must pass.

The continued decline of the salmon populations is hitting our ecosystems and our communities hard. The wildlife and fragile forest ecosystems of Idaho rely on the ocean nutrients brought back by salmon to stay happy and healthy. Native fishermen who have been living in this area for thousands of years rely on these salmon to feed their communities. And of course, Idaho’s economy greatly benefits from our booming recreational fishing industry.  

So, for the past several years, scientist have been considering removing some of these dams that are impacting salmon populations. But taking actions to remove dams is not an easy decision, right? Idaho and the greater Pacific Northwest would not be what it is today without the region’s dams. Many dams provide our communities with jobs, electricity, and flood control for agricultural lands.

The big question that scientists have had to answer is: how do we restore salmon runs without harming our communities? 

After years of investigation, studies from the federal government, tribal governments, and independent entities have found that just four dams need to be removed to improve sockeye salmon populations (out of the 400 dams that control the Columbia River Basin). These four dams are along the lower Snake River. They are ‘run-of-river dams’ meaning they do not offer much flood control for agricultural purposes or hydroelectricity.

The primary reason these dams were built in the 1960s and 1970s was to transport grain and other agricultural goods from Idaho to Washington and Oregon.  The plan was to make Idaho a major seaport irrespective of the fact that Idaho is over 900 miles from the ocean. Today, these dams still serve the purpose of aiding barge travel, but many Idahoans believe that removing the dams and transitioning to freight travel is economically viable and quite frankly, a no-brainer to prevent the extinction of the sockeye salmon and other native fish species.

Starting with the development of Idaho’s first fish hatchery in 1888, we have been trying desperately to engineer a human-controlled ecosystem that is superior to Mother Nature’s creation. After 132 years, we have created genetically inferior fish and aquatic habitats devoid of nutrients and oxygen. The salmon of the Salmon River have been replaced by non-native trout and Redfish Lake is stocked with everything but the iconic red fish. Estimates have found that we spend $9,000 on each sockeye salmon in the Snake River Tributary yet between 1985 and 2007, an average of 18 sockeye salmon annually returned to Idaho.

If we have learned anything over the past century, it is that we cannot industrialize our way out of this salmon population problem. Our best chance of revitalizing our rivers, our communities, and our recreation industry is to get rid of the concrete and let the Snake River run free all the way to Redfish Lake.

Written By: Kelsey Maxwell, Summer Naturalist for SIHA