The Northwest Power and Conservation Council on Thursday approved a move by the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho to go into the next phase of planning for an expansion of its landmark white sturgeon hatchery program and the creation of a one-of-a-kind burbot production program.
The goal is to upgrade the existing Tribal Sturgeon Hatchery near Bonners Ferry, Idaho, for the ongoing Kootenai River sturgeon program and construct a new hatchery about 10 miles upstream at the confluence of the Kootenai and Moyie rivers.
Efforts to address critical needs in the sturgeon program and launch a program aimed reviving the Kootenai River’s burbot population are outlined in a master plan first submitted to the Council in 2009. That master plan was revised in order to answer questions posed by the Council’s Independent Scientific Review Panel and resubmitted in June. Upon further review the ISRP said in an August report that the master plan meets the scientific requirements to move to Step 2 of the Council’s 3-Step process for evaluating new artificial production proposals.
Step 1 involves conceptual planning, engineering and development of the master plan. So far $490,000 has been spent planning the Kootenai proposal. The tribe estimates it will cost just over $1 million to conduct the preliminary planning and design and $164,546 to complete environmental compliance requirements during Step 2.
The tribe hopes to get a thumbs up from the Council, and the Bonneville Power Administration, by the end of 2011 to begin final design (Step 3) and carry out the construction activities in 2012 and 2013. Estimated construction costs are $15.3 million.
The white sturgeon program has been funded through the NPCC’s Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program since 1988. The newly constructed experimental white sturgeon hatchery at Bonners Ferry began operations in 1991. Bonneville, which markets power generated in the federal Columbia-Snake river hydrosystem, funds the Council’s program as mitigation for hydro system impacts on fish and wildlife.
The Kootenai River white sturgeon and burbot (a freshwater species in the cod family) have in recent decades teetered on the edge of extinction. Among the factors driving the sturgeon and burbot populations downward were human development of the Kootenai River subbasin, which has been modified by agriculture, logging, mining, food control and power generation operations upstream at Libby Dam and other land uses. Much of the lower river wetlands and riparian and in north Idaho and southern British Columbia has been converted to farmland.
The fish propagation activities are being conducted in concert with an aggressive effort to restore habitat and improve river conditions for fish.
The white sturgeon population was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1994. It is estimated that fewer than 1,000 adult sturgeon remain in their range from Kootenai Falls in western Montana to Kootenay Lake in British Columbia and that roughly 4 percent of those adult fish die naturally each year and are not being replaced. Significant recruitment of naturally produced sturgeon into the spawning population has not been witnessed since the 1950s.
The tribe has been releasing hatchery produced juvenile sturgeon into the river with since 1992.
A total of 178,000 young fish have been released “with excellent survival as long as they are released at the right age,” Sue Ireland, the tribe’s fish and wildlife director, told the Council. Survival has approached 90 percent for fish released at age 1 or older.
But, since the fish take 30 years to mature, those hatchery fish are still too young to spawn.
Burbot, though not listed, may be in even more dire straits. Only about 50 of the large, long-lived fish remain in the Kootenai system, according to a 2003 estimate.
An effort to develop burbot aquaculture methods was initiated by the tribes in 2003 in collaboration with the British Columbia Ministry of the Environment, Idaho Fish and Game, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the University of Idaho’s Aquaculture Research Institute. Basic culture methods have now been established and documented for spawning, egg incubation, larval rearing, juvenile grow out.
The first experimental releases – 247 burbot in all – into the Kootenai River system took place in October and November of 2009.
“Nobody had ever cultured burbot before,” said Ireland. That development process also involved contacts with researchers in South Dakota and Belgium, two other locales where burbot culturing was being explored.
The envisioned upgrades and expansion of the sturgeon aquaculture facilities are needed to address expanded program objectives that accompany the recognition that the next sturgeon generation will be produced primarily by the hatchery, according to a memo prepared by Mark Fritsch, the Council’s project implementation manager.
“Upgrades proposed at the existing hatchery include a new spawning room that would eliminate the need to relocate large fish from one building to another, provide a safer means to transport large adult sturgeon to and from the river, and other measures to improve fish culture practices and worker safety,” the memo says. “Because there is no physical capacity to expand the Tribal Sturgeon Hatchery, the tribe is requesting approval for construction of the new Twin Rivers Hatchery.”
“The proposed new facilities at Twin Rivers would include spawning channels, incubation rooms, rearing ponds, water filtration, two employee houses, and administrative/biological support facilities. The Twin Rivers Hatchery site is desirable because it provides high quality pathogen-free groundwater as well as surface water from both the Moyie and Kootenai rivers. The site may also provide conditions for white sturgeon free embryos to imprint to and ultimately home to a reach that appears to provide adequate habitat conditions for recruitment.”
“The Tribe is proposing to include burbot aquaculture facilities as part of the new Twin Rivers Hatchery. The burbot holding, spawning and rearing tanks would be located in a separate building from Kootenai sturgeon and rainbow trout (a certified disease-free stock to feed burbot and sturgeon broodstock) to minimize potential pathogen transmission.”