Northwest Tribes Maximize Steelhead Populations

8:12 amThu March 28, 2013

 By Aaron Kunz

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.

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