Saving Sockeye

Saving Sockeye

David Sparks Ph.D.
David Sparks Ph.D.
Fish managers face difficult choices when high heat threatens fish

Biologists strive to provide as much fishing opportunity knowing extreme conditions can work against them

Idaho Fish and Game initiated the first fish salvage order of 2021 in mid-June due to low water, which is earlier than usual and signals more challenges ahead as summer progresses. With drought in some areas and near-record high temperatures throughout the state in late June, conditions may become hazardous for fish. 

“Fish salvage is common in Idaho, but this is about two months earlier than normal, so this is shaping up to be a bad year,” Fish and Game State Fisheries Manager Joe Kozfkay said. 

Fisheries managers closely watch these situations and know what actions to take. These decisions aren’t taken lightly, and they can be controversial in the literal “heat of the moment,” but biologists have experience and scientific research to help guide them. 

If there’s a reservoir, lake or pond that’s destined to be drained by the end of summer, or become uninhabitable to fish, a fish manager has limited options: trap and relocate fish, offer salvage fishing, do nothing, or a combination of them.

“Anglers may think we’re reluctant to trap and relocate fish, but under the correct circumstances, the opposite is true,” Kozfkay said. “Our staff will work hard to provide and maintain fishing opportunities, and sometimes, rescuing stranded fish is a good use of resources.” 

Fish and Game strives to provide the most fishing opportunity possible while also wisely using money provided by anglers’ license fees. Biologists hedge their bets by putting the most resources into locations that are most likely to have reliable water supplies and abundant fish. 

To save or salvage

Overall, fish in Idaho are resilient, and depending on the severity of the situation, populations can be unaffected, or quickly rebound. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case, especially when reservoirs and ponds are drained so low, or become so warm, that they no longer support the preferred fish species. 

The decision to trap and relocate fish is based on two questions. First, can the fish be captured and transported effectively and efficiently? A variety of factors are considered to answer that question, such as accessibility, whether fish are too stressed to be safely captured, transported and transplanted, and whether there are competing work demands, or other factors.

The second question: Would translocated fish substantially improve the fishery in the receiving water? Managers often have to make a difficult call whether there is an actual need for more fish, such as juveniles, in the receiving water. There may be pressure from anglers wanting to “save” all the fish, even though those fish may offer little, if any, benefit in the water where they’re placed. 

“We face a cost/benefit decision, and there may be other projects that provide more benefits,” Kozfkay said. “But we also realize that may be difficult for anglers to understand when their favorite fishing spot is threatened.”

Unfortunately, allowing salvage fishing may be a better alternative in some cases, even knowing the fish that anglers don’t harvest are likely to die.

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