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Water | Environment

Tribes Work To Maximize Columbia River Basin Steelhead

OROFINO, Idaho — 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.

Nez Perce tribal fishery employees say they have the best job in the world. But it’s definitely not for everyone. Winter steelhead return to the large Dworshak National Fish Hatchery near Orofino in February. Early mornings at the fishery it’s still cold, almost freezing.

Clearwater River Basin

Andrew Pierce, a fisheries scientist with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, is dressed in waterproof layers. “We get wet,” he says. “We have to get up early in the morning, but that’s part of the job and once you get used to it – it’s not so bad.”

He and several dozen Nez Perce tribal members pull large, eight pound steelhead from tanks of water. The fish are weighed and measured. Then the eggs and milt - or semen - are removed from the fish. 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 rate than if the steelhead were to spawn naturally in the river.

Steelhead Andrew Pierce
Andrew Pierce

Salmon die after naturally spawning, but steelhead don’t. They often return to the ocean and back to Northwest rivers a second time. In the traditional artificial spawning process, which involves killing the fish, then surgically removing the eggs and milt, the steelhead die.

Scott Everett manages the Nez Perce Tribe’s Kelt Reconditioning Program. The program is named after the female steelhead that has spawned, called kelts.

The tribe wanted to maximize the natural process. They needed to find a method of artificial spawning that didn’t kill the fish.

Everett says they inject low pressure into the abdomen of the fish to gently expel the eggs. “Instead of killing the fish, you’re filling the body cavity with air and that essentially forces the eggs out.”

Steelhead Scott Everett
Scott Everett

Everett says the goal is to rebuild the once abundant populations of steelhead. Overfishing, water quality and hundreds of dams have impacted steelhead numbers over the years.

After the artificial spawning, the steelhead are then placed in large tanks for a few weeks to recover. The tribal members then put the fish back into the river to start the trip back to the ocean.

That’s where the Yakama Nation tribe comes in. The central Washington tribe has been successfully 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, says Everett. “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 to work on. Their facility isn’t large enough to handle this many fish all at once. Matt Abrahams is with the Yakama Nation tribe and works on steelhead recovery on the Methow River. He drove seven hours to Idaho, to help the Nez Perce with the spawning of hundreds of steelhead.

Abrahams says, “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.” He says they handle more fish here than they would in several years in certain rivers in Washington.

Steelhead Matt Abrahams
Matt Abrahams

Funding for the tribal Kelt Program comes from the Bonneville Power Administration to offset the impact federal dams have on migrating salmon and steelhead. It amounts to over $1 million a year.

It’s easy to extract the eggs and keep the fish alive. The hard part is getting the steelhead to start eating 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.”

They tried putting fish eggs into blocks of jello. They even tried forcing feeding the fish. But, Pierce says, all these efforts failed. They soon learned these steelhead like to eat krill, small shrimp-like creatures that live in the ocean. Pierce says “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.”

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.

But the Nez Perce program in Idaho, now well into it’s second year, ran into several problems including a broken pipe that feeds the hatchery with fresh water. They had a 10 percent survival rate last year. Pierce says now that the pipe is fixed, he predicts they will have a 50 percent survival rate this year.

The tribes in the Northwest once relied on steelhead for food. They say they don’t want to lose that part of their heritage. That’s why efforts like the Kelt Program are so important to the tribes.

Steelhead are currently listed as threatened in north central Washington and north Idaho.