Sockeye salmon
For information on sockeye and other salmon and steelhead stocks see:
Recreational Salmon Fishing
Salmonid Stock Inventory (SaSI)

Contributions from The Columbia Basin Bulletin

Columbia River Sockeye

Sockeye salmon in the Columbia Basin have declined substantially from historic levels but have rebounded to modern day records. Historic runs were as large as 3 million fish; in 2014 over 645,100 sockeye returned to the Columbia River, the largest sockeye run since at least the construction of Bonneville Dam in 1938. The previous high count for the entire season (dating back to 1938) was 515,673 in 2012.

The Snake River stock was federally-listed as endangered in November 1991. The upper Columbia stocks are considered healthy populations and are not ESA-listed. Sockeye reintroduced in the Yakima River in Washington and Oregon’s Deschutes Rivers are also not ESA listed.

Most of the original production of sockeye occurred in nursery lakes located in the uppermost reaches of the Columbia and Snake River basins. Upstream passage was blocked by the construction of several key dams including: Grand Coulee Dam (completed 1941) in the upper Columbia system; and by Swan Falls (1901), Sunbeam (1913-1934), Black Canyon (1914), and Brownlee (1958) dams in the Snake system. Landlocked sockeye salmon, commonly called kokanee, are still produced in many of the areas that formerly contained anadromous runs. Currently, anadromous populations of sockeye originate almost exclusively from natural production in the Wenatchee and Okanogan basins.

The Columbia-Snake river basin is the southernmost part of the sockeye's range. The vast majority of the run returns Wenatchee and Okanogan river basins and most of them, about 85 percent, return to the Okanagan. Snake River sockeye are unique in that they travel the farthest in freshwater to spawn of any sockeye stock and climb upriver to an elevation of 6,500 feet.

Sockeye salmon migrate through the lower Columbia River during June and July with normal peak passage at Bonneville Dam around July 1. The Wenatchee stock generally migrates earlier than the Okanogan stock although the run timing of both stocks overlap. Sockeye counts at Ice Harbor Dam (on the Snake River) and Priest Rapids Dam (on the upper Columbia River) both extend from early June through mid-July, which suggests that the run timing of the Snake River component is similar to the upper Columbia sockeye.

Columbia River sockeye return as age-3, age-4, and age-5 fish. Fish returning to Osoyoos Lake in the Okanogan Basin are typically Age-3 and Age-4 fish. Those returning to Lake Wenatchee in the Wenatchee Basin are typically Age-4 and Age-5 fish. Spawning occurs in September and October. Juveniles normally rear in a freshwater nursery lake for at least one full year before migrating to the ocean.

The management goal for upper Columbia River sockeye is to ensure 65,000 fish make it up and over Priest Rapids Dam on the mid-Columbia, which is the fifth dam they encounter. That normally requires that at least 75,000 sockeye pass Bonneville, which is the first dam the fish encounter on their spawning journey.

Combined non-Indian impacts on ESA-listed Snake River sockeye will be minimized, and shall not exceed 1% of the run entering the Columbia River. The following schedule reflects the current (2013-2023) Commission policy for non-Indian sockeye fisheries. Prior to 2013, impacts were not directly assigned, but were allocated to meet each fisheries objective.

Non-Indian ESA Impact Allocation for Snake River Sockeye based on Commission Policy
Recreational Commercial*
Share Location Share Location
2013-2016 70% Mainstem below Snake River 30% Mainstem Below BON
2017-2023 ~80% Mainstem below Snake River ~20% Mainstem Below BON
* For incidental sockeye harvest in Chinook-directed fisheries. No commercial sockeye-directed fisheries allowed.

Fisheries conducted by the Columbia River treaty tribes will be managed according to the following schedule and all fishery impacts on sockeye will be included in the specified harvest rates.

Treaty Indian Sockeye Harvest Rate Schedule, 2008-2017.
Upriver Sockeye Run Size Harvest Rate
<50,000 5%
50,000-75,000 7%
>75,000 7%, with further discussion

Large and surprising returns of sockeye salmon to the Columbia River in 2010 and 2012 were the result of local ocean conditions and the eating habits of the juvenile fish as they leave the river each spring to journey north along the Washington coastline.

While freshwater survival continues to improve as juvenile sockeye find their way from the upper Columbia and Snake river basins to the ocean, the returns counted at Bonneville Dam in 2010 of 386,000 sockeye and in 2012 of 500,000 sockeye salmon are largely due to offshore upwelling that increases chlorophyll concentrations that in turn increase the prevalence of zooplankton near the coast.

The sockeye begin to feed on these nutrients immediately after entering the ocean. Sockeye salmon eat at a lower end of the food chain than do chinook and coho salmon who mostly feed on small fish and this is giving the sockeye an advantage in ocean survival.

These conclusions were published in an article in the May edition of the online journal Fisheries Oceanography

Snake River Sockeye

The anadromous run of sockeye in the Snake River has been reduced to a remnant but increasing run in Redfish Lake. Historically, five Sawtooth Valley lakes – Alturas, Pettit, Redfish, Stanley and Yellowbelly – supported sockeye salmon. Restoration efforts today are focused on Alturas, Pettit, and Redfish lakes

In the 1880s observers reported lakes and streams in the Stanley Basin teeming with “redfish” -- sockeye. Returns were estimated between 25,000 and 35,000 sockeye. Construction of the Sunbeam Dam on the Salmon River in 1913 blocked upstream fish passage. The dam was partially destroyed in 1934 which reopened the upper Salmon River to fish passage.

During the 1990s, the number of sockeye entering the Columbia River destined for the Snake River basin averaged eight fish per year. In December 1991, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) listed Snake River sockeye as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

In the 2000s, Snake River sockeye returns averaged 400 fish which was mainly driven by the increased returns observed beginning in 2008. During the past ten years (2003–2012), the Snake River return has averaged 800 fish to the Columbia River. In 2014, a total of 2,900 fish returned. The 2015 forecast is 1,800 fish.

In 2014, a total of 2,775 sockeye salmon had climbed over the lower Snake River’s Lower Granite Dam which is the eighth and final hydro project the fish must hurdle on their 900-mile journey up the Columbia, Snake and Salmon rivers. The 2014 return eclipsed what had been the modern-day record annual count of 2,201 fish in 2010. That record goes back to 1975, the year construction of Lower Granite was completed.

Those fish that have cleared Lower Granite Dam still have about 400 miles to swim upriver to reach central Idaho’s Sawtooth Valley. A total of 1,477 Snake River sockeye made their way up that home stretch to the Sawtooth Valley, a number that surpassed the 2010 record total of 1,355 for the season.

The 2014 total represents fish trapped and sampled, for the most part, on Redfish Lake Creek. A portion of those fish have ultimately been passed through to continue their journey toward the lake. Others have been transported to the IDFG’s Eagle Hatchery near Boise where they will be held until mid-month. A portion of those fish will be spawned at Eagle to perpetuate the hatchery program whole some will be returned to central Idaho for release into Redfish Lake so that they can spawn naturally

The increased numbers of returning sockeye today are due in large part due to Snake River Sockeye Salmon Captive Broodstock Program which was begun early in 1991 to preserve the genetic stock of a severely declined species that was on the brink of extinction. The program headed by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and is largely paid for by the Bonneville Power Administration.

Partners in the restoration include NOAA Fisheries Service, which shares captive broodstock fish culture responsibilities at two facilities located in Washington state and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife which provides smolt rearing for the program. Also the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes conducts habitat investigations geared toward determining the ability of nursery lakes to receive eggs and fish from the program and conducts and evaluates lake fertilization. The University of Idaho provides genetic support for the program

In 2013 a new sockeye hatchery in Springfield, Idaho came on line with the capacity to dramatically expand releases of juvenile sockeye, which is expected to further increase returns. The Springfield Hatchery is now rearing its first batch of young salmon with the expectation that about 220,000 smolts will be released into Redfish Lake Creek in May 2015. A total of about 700,000 fertilized eggs will be delivered to Springfield in 2014 with the hope they will generate 600,000 smolts for release in May 2016. The target is 1.2 million eyed eggs to Springfield in 2015.

A Snake River sockeye recovery plan has been drafted. This plan builds on the successful Snake River Sockeye Captive Broodstock program. It describes the limiting factors and threats that impact survival and recovery. It then identifies a set of strategies and actions to address the limiting factors and threats, and restore natural sockeye salmon populations in Sawtooth Valley lakes to levels that will achieve Snake River sockeye salmon recovery.

The National Marine Fisheries Service estimates that recovery of Snake River sockeye salmon could take 50 to 100 years and cost about $101,469,775 over the next 25 years.

The plan is available online at NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region Current Snake River Recovery Plan Documents.

Lake Wenatchee Sockeye

The escapement goal at Priest Rapids Dam is 65,000 sockeye. Turn-off into Lake Wenatchee is measured by subtracting the Rocky Reach Dam count from the Rock Island Dam count. On average 50% of the sockeye run has crossed Rock Island Dam by about July 13 and Rocky Reach Dam by July 17. Although no escapement goal is formally established for the Wenatchee system, the past objectives were to have 23,000 fish reach the spawning grounds after fisheries.

Based on harvest estimates of prior years, it is expected that a fishery in Lake Wenatchee would harvest about 16% of the Wenatchee River run. Therefore, a return of about 27,000 sockeye in the Wenatchee component would be required before opening a sport fishery.

Recreational fishing opportunity for sockeye in Lake Wenatchee is dependent on having harvestable runs. Recreational fisheries for sockeye have frequently occurred in Lake Wenatchee since the 1980s. The fishery would typically open in early August and remain open until the harvestable surplus is taken.

During the past ten years (2003–2012), the Wenatchee return has averaged 27,000 fish. The 2014 return included 118,500 Wenatchee stock returning to the Columbia River. The 2015 forecast is 106,700 fish.

Okanogan Sockeye

Most of the run destined for the Okanogan River in Canada are primarily natural origin fish. The Okanogan population spawns primarily in a 3.7-mile stretch of the Okanogan River north of the town of Oliver, British Columbia, and about 560 miles from the Columbia estuary,

Okanogan sockeye swim upstream and downstream through nine major hydro projects. Wells Dam is the last of nine major hydro projects the fish pass on their way to Lake Osoyoos and beyond to spawn. Wells Dam is located at river mile 515. After clearing Wells the sockeye turn into the Okanogan and swim an additional 100 miles before they are ready to spawn.

Almost all of the natural production is in the river just below McIntyre Dam. McIntyre Dam is located Okanogan between Oliver and Okanogan Falls, British Columbia and is a part of the Okanogan Basin Lake Regulation System. The dam controls the water level of Vaseux Lake and the flows of Okanogan River between Vaseux and Osoyoos lakes. The dam was constructed in the1950s. Since that time upstream fish passage has been impeded but recent years improvements have allow access to historic spawning grounds including Skaha Lake. Skaha Lake is located along the course of the Okanagan River in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, Canada.

The Okanogan adult sockeye salmon return has been amazingly numerous over the past six years with annual counts at Wells Dam totaling at least 130,000 and reaching as high as 326,000 in 2012 and 291,000 in 2010. No other annual count on a record dating back to 1977 exceeded 81,000. The 2013 return included 148,800 Okanogan fish returning to the Columbia River. An estimated 523,700 fish returned in 2014. The 2015 forecast is 285,500 fish, similar to last year’s forecast of 282,500.

Favorable ocean conditions, increased hatcheries releases, and improved juvenile rearing habitat and freshwater migration conditions all can be given credit for the surge. New water management tools first implemented in the Okanogan basin in 2004-2005 have greatly reduced losses of eggs and juvenile fish to drought and flood and scour events allowing more juveniles to survive.

A "Fish-Water Management Tools” (FWMT) system developed specifically to manage water flows in the Okanogan River’s headwaters in British Columbia is believed to have helped. Since the FWMT was first used during the 2004-2005 season there have been no significant losses of sockeye or kokanee to drought and desiccation or flood and scour events. In previous years the drying out of sockeye redds and eggs in winter (as water was being held back to refill upstream reservoirs) and spring scour-flood events events that can serve to wipe out fry production were relatively common,

Natural smolt production in the Canadian northern arm of Lake Osoyoos jumped from a historic average of about 300,000 sockeye salmon per year to a range of from three million to almost nine million since 2006 according to data compiled through 2010.

Reintroducing sockeye salmon into Skaha Lake has been ongoing now for 11 years with 700,000 to 1.1 million fry planted in the lake annually. An estimated 10 percent of recent annual spawner returns originate from those fry outplants in Skaha Lake.

The sockeye population will be further boosted with the completion of a new hatchery at Penticton, British Columbia. After more than seven years of collaborative visioning, planning, and detailed preparations for a new hatchery on the Okanogan River system construction was started in the summer of 2013 and completed in 2014. The hatchery was developed in partnership with and funded by the Grant and Chelan PUDs.

The new hatchery will spawn adults, incubate eggs, and provide early rearing each year before fish are released into release into Okanogan River system including Skaha Lake. The 25,000 square foot salmon hatchery will have the capacity to rear up to 8 million sockeye salmon eggs which will be released annually as fry into the Okanogan system.

Deschutes River Sockeye

An upper Deschutes’ tributary, the Metolius River, is a historic source of sockeye but the species’ access to the Pacific Ocean was blocked with the construction of the dams in the 1961. Historically they had used Suttle Lake in the upper Metolius basin and spawned in Link Creek between Suttle and Blue lakes.

Work done to reintroduce salmon and steelhead to the upper reaches of central Oregon’s Deschutes River basin has shown progress with the first adult returns in more than 40 years showing up at the bottom of the Pelton-Round Butte three-dam complex in 2011 and again in 2012. In 2014, around 30 adult sockeye reached Round Butte Dam and were passed upstream.

An underwater tower and fish collection station that restored fish passage to the Upper Deschutes Basin is now in operation allowing the trapping of young resident kokanee. The collected young fish are each year being hauled around what is a largely impassable set of dams built on the river. The tower creates currents in Lake Billy Chinook that attract juvenile fish migrating downstream. On their return adult fish enter a fish trap below the hydro projects and are moved above the dams to complete their migration cycle.

Kokanee are of the same species but spend their entire life in freshwater, in this case through no choice of their own. It is hoped that the release downstream of young kokanee will rekindle the “anadromous” – ocean-going sockeye stock. Once released the fish swim roughly 100 miles down the lower Deschutes to the Columbia River then negotiate downstream passage at Bonneville Dam before entering the Pacific Ocean.

Cle Elum River Sockeye

The dam blocking the Cle Elum River, which is a tributary to the Yakima River and then the Columbia River, was built in 1933. Even earlier timber crib dams, initially constructed to enlarge four existing natural glacial lakes again including Cle Elum, blocked fish passage to tributaries upstream from the dams and contributed to the eventual extirpation of the sockeye salmon runs in the Yakima River basin by the early 20th century.

Four nursery lakes in the Yakima River Basin which historically produced an estimated annual return of at least 200,000 sockeye were removed from production in the early 1900s when irrigation storage dams were constructed without passage.

The tribal reintroduction effort launched in 2009 with the release of 1,000 adult sockeye into Cle Elum Lake that had been headed up the Columbia River toward either the Okanogan or Wenatchee river basin. The fish were captured at Priest Rapids Dam on the Columbia. It was the first fish to the Yakima River in over 100 years. A total of 2,500 adult sockeye were transplanted in the summer of 2010, 4,500 in 2011, 10,000 in 2012 and 4,000 in 2013.

The releases and spawning monitoring as well as surveys of outmigrating juveniles are part of a cooperative investigation involving the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Yakama Nation, Washington, other federal agencies and others to study the feasibility of providing fish passage at the five large storage dams of the Bureau's Yakima irrigation project.

The tribe intends, at least for now, to supplement the newly native sockeye returns with fish trapped at Priest Rapids when returns are strong enough to allow it. The Yakama Nation is allowed to take 1,000 spawners after the 80,000 fish have been counted passing over the lower Columbia’s Bonneville Dam. Another 1,000 can be trapped and hauled up the Yakima after that Bonneville count reaches 110,000 and so on.

The sockeye have successfully spawned in tributaries above the lake in all years. Juveniles from the 2009 brood were observed migrating downstream at Roza and Prosser dams in 2011. They would have exited the lake via a temporary passage device at the dam – a wooden flume in the spillway. Preliminary data from trapping operations at Prosser indicated a 2011 smolt outmigration of approximately 80,000 sockeye.

Adult returns from the tribal re-introduction efforts are underway. At Prosser Dam on the Yakima River, just over 2,500 sockeye were counted in 2014.

The Yakama Nation is working with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the dams, and other Yakima subbasin partners to create up and downstream fish passage to all of these historical lakes with initial emphasis on Cle Elum and Bumping lakes.