July 28, 2022
It is estimated that as many as 18 million salmon and steelhead once returned each year to the Columbia River Basin to spawn. This important natural process was disrupted by the construction of more than 400 dams, which blocked passage to historic spawning grounds. Four dams on the lower Columbia River and four dams on the lower Snake River proved especially problematic. Since the construction of those eight monumental obstacles, salmon and steelhead returns in the watershed have plummeted.
Within a generation or so of the building of these hydroelectric projects, 13 populations of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River and Snake River systems were listed under the Endangered Species Act. In 1985, Snake River coho salmon were declared functionally extinct—still there, but heading toward ecological Armageddon. By 1993, all of the Snake River salmon and steelhead were classified as endangered under the ESA.
As recently as 2019, fewer than 5,000 Chinook, or king salmon, returned to the Snake River system to spawn. That same year, only 14 sockeye salmon were able to find their way back to their historic spawning grounds in central Idaho. Without our help, which includes the removal of the dams, these iconic fish and culturally, socially, and economically important natural resources are likely to go extinct, quite possibly within our lifetimes.
Sadly, those 14 sockeye salmon were something of a success story, because at one time it was even worse. In the fall of 1992, a lone sockeye salmon, Oncorhynchus nerka, journeyed from the Pacific Ocean to its historic spawning grounds in Redfish Lake in central Idaho. The fish traveled 900 miles, traversing 6,500 feet in elevation to reach the aptly named lake. Leaving the ocean at the Washington/Oregon border, this determined fish navigated sections of the Columbia, Snake, and Salmon rivers, as well as a short stream and small pond to reach the lake.
Redfish Lake is located in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, and just outside the Sawtooth Wilderness. A pristine alpine lake, it lies at roughly 6,550 feet above sea level and has a maximum depth of 387 feet. The lake is roughly 4.5 miles long and ¾ mile wide with 11 miles of shoreline, for a total area of over 1,500 acres. It is named after the sockeye salmon that have used it for spawning for thousands of years. European settlers said the entire lake appeared red due to the untold thousands of brightly colored spawning sockeye.
Sockeyes are one of five species of salmon found in the Pacific Northwest, along with Chinook, coho, pink, and chum. In 1991, Snake River sockeyes were listed as endangered under the ESA, the first salmon to be so designated. Two populations of Chinook are now classified as endangered, seven are listed as threatened, and one is being considered for listing. Coho are stressed as well, with one population listed as endangered and three as threatened. Pink salmon have been extirpated south of the Columbia River basin, with limited spawning in the basin.
Upriver sockeye salmon are easy to identify by their bright red spawning colors, humped backs, and pronounced hooked jaws. While sockeyes are the third most common salmon in the Pacific Ocean, they are not doing well in the contiguous United States. Unlike other species of salmon that utilize primarily riverine habitat for spawning, sockeyes are dependent on lakes and small lake tributaries for spawning and for rearing the eggs, alevins, and fry.
The lone sockeye salmon that returned to Redfish Lake in 1992 was appropriately dubbed “Lonesome Larry.” This unintentional bachelor represented a low point in Pacific salmon conservation, as without a mate he was unable that year to complete the cycle of life. The victim of dams built on the lower Snake River, returning sockeye numbers in Redfish Lake had fallen from as much as 30,000 to just one. A dire situation, this put the entire genetic lineage at risk of extirpation, or local extinction.
To prevent the complete loss of the population that year, biologists used Larry to artificially fertilize thousands of sockeye eggs. It is said that 5 percent or so of the remaining Snake River sockeyes now carry Larry’s genes. Done with his job, Larry was mounted and hung on the wall of then Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus. Today, the saga of Lonesome Larry stands as a symbol of what needs to be done and why—and a call to arms in regard to the plight of Pacific salmon.
This brings me to Topher Jones, a young man from Boise, Idaho. In most ways, Topher is a typical young teenager who enjoys playing with his friends, practicing and playing the piano and violin, and playing tennis and hockey. A lover of the outdoors, he also enjoys skiing, hiking, camping, and fishing. But there is much more to Topher’s story.
While on vacation with his family near Stanley, Idaho, in 2018, Topher learned about the plight of Lonesome Larry. Although just 11 years old and in fifth grade at the time, he decided that something needed to be done. Topher reached out to nonprofits, government agencies, and Native American tribes to learn as much as he could about Pacific salmon and the threats facing them.
In 2019, Topher launched the Lonesome Larry Project, where he and his siblings developed branded Lonesome Larry products to sell to help raise awareness and money for salmon conservation and recovery. He sought help in designing a Lonesome Larry logo and his first product, Lonesome Larry Sockeye Socks. His goal is to raise $100,000 to help sockeyes. To date, and at just 13 years of age, Topher has already raised over $28,000 for salmon recovery.
According to Topher, “To be a change maker, the first thing I think you need is passion. Without passion, your ideas will be boring and the work will be too hard. The Lonesome Larry Project started with passion.” He notes that problems are all around us, and you don’t have to look far to find them. Topher found a problem, and he acted.
Known locally as the “Sock Guy for Sockeye,” Topher Jones had done more for native fish conservation before he hit his teens than most people do in their lifetimes. Wise beyond his age, Topher understands that motivation starts with information and education. He recognizes that while no one can do everything, everyone can do something. He also understands that incremental changes and small victories lead to big wins, while also paving the way for others to follow suit.
While Sockeye Socks were the first items Topher sold, he added Lonesome Larry bottle openers, keychains, decals, and t-shirts. He sells his wares online from his website, as well as at Idaho Steelheads hockey games, local businesses, and Idaho Fish & Game’s MK Nature Center, donating 100% of the proceeds to conservation. His conservation fund is housed at Idaho Fish & Wildlife Foundation (ifwf.org), where it is used to issue grants via an application process.
Some of the money Topher has raised was used to fund the development of an information kiosk and signs at Idaho Fish & Game’s Redfish Lake Creek fish trap. The kiosk provides information about the plight of sockeye salmon, as well as the plan to try to recover them. The trap is located near the lake and campgrounds, and will be seen by anglers, hikers, boaters, campers, families, and educational groups. Topher also helps raise awareness of salmon by speaking to schools and community groups.
Topher Jones was awarded the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes in 2020, when he was 12 years old. By then he had raised almost $11,000 for sockeyes. He was also selected for the Intermountain West Joint Venture Youth Conservation Award, nominated by Idaho Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Idaho Department of Fish & Game.
When I first learned about Topher, I contacted him to thank him for his work. We traded some schwag, including a Lonesome Larry decal that now adorns my favorite water bottle. As the executive director of Native Fish Coalition, I went to our board to discuss Topher and his work. This led to NFC offering him a position on our National Advisory Council. We felt we could help tell his story and promote his work, while showing that native fish conservation is not age-restricted.
This quote from Topher’s website says it all: “I want these fish to be around for the day when my kids grow up.” He goes on to say, “One day, I hope to close the Lonesome Larry Project because we don’t need to support the salmon anymore. I believe you don’t have to be an expert to help the world. You just need to be really motivated to do something.” Truer and wiser words have never been spoken.
Topher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about Lonesome Larry Project, visit lonesomelarryproject.com.
Bob Mallard is a former fly shop owner, registered Maine fishing guide, writer, and fly designer. He is a founding member and executive director for Native Fish Coalition. He is the author of 50 Best Places Fly Fishing the Northeast, 25 Best Towns Fly Fishing for Trout, Squaretail: The Definitive Guide to Brook Trout and Where to Find Them, and Favorite Flies for Maine: 50 Essential Patterns from Local Experts. You can reach him at bobmallard.com or email@example.com.