Steelhead in the Columbia River Basin are threatened. Current populations have dwindled to a fraction of the historic numbers a century ago. That has led two Northwest Indian Tribes to try something new to help this struggling fish survive. Both tribes are learning from each other along the way.
The snow is almost gone in north Idaho. But it’s still cold, almost freezing on this early morning at the Dworshak National Fish Hatchery near Orofino.
That’s Andrew Pierce with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission or “CRITFC.” He and several dozen Nez Perce tribal members pull large fish from tanks of water. The fish are weighed and measured. Then the eggs and what’s called milt - or semen - are removed. This is all part of an artificial spawning program. The eggs and milt will be combined later in plastic tubes. It’s a process that has a higher success than if the fish were to spawn naturally in the river.
Salmon and Steelhead die in the traditional artificial spawning process which involves killing the fish then surgically removing the eggs and milt.
While salmon die naturally after spawning, Steelhead don’t. They return to the ocean and back to Northwest rivers year after year. Scott Everett is a Nez Perce project manager who says his tribe decided that to maximize the natural process, they needed a method of artificial spawning that didn’t kill the fish. That’s what they are doing here.
“Instead of killing the fish, you’re filling the body cavity with air and that essentially forces the eggs out,” Everett says.
The steelhead are then placed in large tanks for a few weeks to recover. Females that spawn repeatedly are known as kelts. That’s how this program got it’s name - Kelt Reconditioning Program. Everett says the goal is to rebuild the once abundant populations of steelhead that northwest tribes have traditionally relied on along with salmon. Overfishing, water quality and hundreds of dams that make passage difficult for the fish have impacted steelhead numbers over the years.
“We’re hopefully getting enough fish alive that we can actually put them in our reconditioning project here and keep them alive for three to six month or longer and get them back out in the river," Everett says.
Thats where the Yakama Nation tribe comes in. The central Washington tribe has been using the Kelt Reconditioning Program for 14-years.
“They have had some really good success and we’re hoping to jump on some of the things they have been doing and just run with it," Everett says. "They’ve done a very good job and we’re just modeling what we’re doing after them.”
But what the Yakama Nation Tribal members have in experience, they lack in actual steelhead. Matt Abrahams is with the Yakama Nation tribe and works on steelhead recovery on the Methow River in Northern Washington. He drove to Idaho to help the Nez Perce with the spawning of hundreds of steelhead.
“Since there are so many fish that they are working up here – we’re getting our hands on more fish and getting more experience that we can take back to the upper Columbia basin,” Abraham says.
Funding for Washington’s and Idaho’s kelt program comes from the Bonneville Power Administration to offset the impact federal dams have on migrating salmon and steelhead. It amounts to over a million dollars a year. The money is paid to the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission which represents four Northwest indian tribes in the Northwest including the Yakama Nation and the Nez Perce. From there the money is parsed out to the individual tribes.
It’s easy to extract the eggs and keep the fish alive. But it wasn’t so easy to get the steelhead to eat again. Andrew Pierce says many died because they refused to eat.
“We have tried a lot of different things, we’ve tried squid, we’ve tried eggs from the fish,” Pierce says.
They even tried putting fish eggs into blocks of jello.
Pierce says they soon learned these steelhead like krill, small shrimp like creatures that live in the ocean. He says they also learned something else...
To some degree it’s a social phenomenon, you’ll see that once one fish starts eating the other fish will begin to eat as well," Pierce says.
The Yakama Nation reports a 50-percent survival rate. That’s the percentage of female steelhead that survive the reconditioning program and are returned to the river.
“And I don’t see any reason why we can’t replicate that over here. We’re just getting going over here – it’s just the first few years of the project," Pirece says.
Steelhead survival at Dworshak National Fish Hatchery is far less - a 10 percent survival rate last year. Some of that was due to water quality issues that have been resolved.
Pierce predicts the hatchery will have around a 50 percent survival rate this year. The next problem will be to get the steelhead to the ocean safely and return to spawn again.
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