‘Sock Guy for the Sockeye’: Boise 11-year-old raises money to save Idaho fish
Ximena Bustillo, Idaho Statesman
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BOISE (Idaho Statesman) — Topher Jones loves to play hockey, and enjoys showing off his card tricks to anyone who will take a chance.
In the past few months, however, he’s been working on a different kind of magic. The resourceful 11-year-old created the Lonesome Larry Project, and the rabbit he’s trying to pull out of a hat is actually a fish: the endangered sockeye salmon, whose numbers Topher hopes to help restore in Idaho’s waters.
Named after the fish that traveled 900 miles up the Columbia and Snake rivers, and was the only sockeye to return to Idaho’s Redfish Lake in 1992, the Lonesome Larry Project is a family-operated outfit with a greater goal.
“There actually is a problem and there are a lot of people who do not know about Lonesome Larry. We need awareness,” said Topher, who has dubbed himself the “Sock Guy for the Sockeye.”
Selling socks, bottle openers and coins — all with logos designed by the Jones family — Topher has already collected and donated $1,500 to the Idaho Fish and Wildlife Foundation. By the end of 2019, he says he will have donated $5,000.
“In October, Topher and his dad came in to meet with Fish and Game to learn about salmon and about how they can partner,” said Hilarie Engle, executive director of the Fish and Wildlife Foundation. “And it was just natural for us, because we work so closely with the department to be able to accept his funds and put the funds towards projects for fish restoration or habitat restoration.”
Topher’s concern for the sockeye is not misplaced.
This year Fish and Game recorded the lowest number of these salmon returning to the Sawtooth Basin — just 17 — since 2007, when only four fish returned. There were 113 sockeye that made it back in 2018; 157 in 2017; and 552 in 2016, according to Fish and Game. The return numbers peaked in 2014, with 1,516 sockeye returning, but have declined sharply since.
The Idaho Fish and Wildlife Foundation launches a competitive grant program each spring, allowing nonprofits trying to help fish and their habitat to apply for funds. According to Engle, Topher will be able to read the applications and vote on which project should receive the money he raised.
“In Cascade, they are restabilizing the river bank by planting willows,” Engle said. “There are a lot of projects in Salmon and Pocatello. People are really working to protect the landscape where there are issues or where things are not in the greatest shape.”
The Lonesome Larry Project merchandise can be found at the MK Nature Center, online and at Sockeye Brewing. Additionally, the family has done pop-up events at Idaho Steelheads hockey games and other locations.
Topher is learning about running a business, packaging and calculating postage, and he has vowed to stay true to his cause: He said he will continue the project until the sockeye are no longer threatened.
Topher learned about the endangered salmon at school prior to visiting a hatchery and seeing some sockeye for himself. According to his mom, Karen Jones, the educational component not only emboldened Topher, but also has motivated his customers.
“Without the education piece, I don’t think it would have stuck as much or meant as much prior to going to the hatchery. I think education makes a very big difference,” Karen Jones said. “Even when we did the Steelheads events and (Topher) educated people … with a cool product to show, people seemed pretty excited.”
Topher said he is thankful for the support and education that he has received about Idaho’s wild fish, and encourages others not to be afraid to act on an issue, regardless of their age.
“Just because they are young doesn’t mean they can’t do it. We have lots of proof around the world of kids doing stuff to save the world,” Topher Jones said. “They can do it and they are not alone.”