A hatchery program that has since 1991 focused, primarily, on preserving genetic materials and avoiding extinction of a species is poised to take the next steps toward recolonizing three high country lakes, two of which that have long been empty, with anadromous, naturally produced Snake River sockeye salmon.
The first step is to create a hatchery devoted exclusively to raising enough smolts – young fish ready to make their migration to the Pacific Ocean – to fuel a major resurgence in the number of adult sockeye that return to the basin to spawn.
The master plan for that hatchery was reviewed this winter by the Independent Scientific Review Panel as part of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s three-step process for evaluating hatchery proposals. The ISRP in its review completed last month said the master plan “meets scientific criteria (qualified).” The panel outlined six qualifications/recommendations that it said could be addressed during the second step of the process.
“The Master Plan is well written and addresses a challenging situation. Currently Snake River sockeye salmon are under full-lifecycle captive culture, and the ISRP has recognized that a step toward establishing a self-sustaining natural population is likely to include first establishing a self-sustaining anadromous hatchery program,” the ISRP review says. “The current program uses Lower Snake River Compensation Plan hatchery facilities, and it is understandable from a variety of standpoints that a facility dedicated to Snake River sockeye salmon is desirable.”
During its meeting in Boise this week the Council’s Fish and Wildlife Committee endorsed the project. The full Council will decide next month whether to accept the plan and send the Idaho Department of Fish and Game proposal into Step 2, more detailed planning. The Council recommends projects for funding through its Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program. The Bonneville Power Administration, which markets power generated in the federal Columbia-Snake power system, pays for the program.
The project involves renovating and adding to the Springfield Hatchery near Pocatello to produce between 400,000 and 1 million full-term smolts annually for release in the upper Salmon River subbasin in the Sawtooth basin.
The IDFG’s Snake River Sockeye Salmon Captive Broodstock Program has slowly built up smolt production to 150,000 and then almost 250,000 last year at existing facilities. But more rearing space was needed to meet the smolt production goals outlined in NOAA Fisheries’ 2008 Federal Columbia River Power System biological opinion and the 2008 memorandum of agreement between the state of Idaho, BPA and the federal agencies that operate the mainstem hydro projects. The BiOp describes mitigation actions that are necessary to avoid jeopardizing fish stocks that are listed under the Endangered Species Act.
“We lack the space to rear a substantial number of smolts,” the IDFG’s Paul Kline told the Council Tuesday.
The Snake River sockeye are the most endangered of the 13 listed Columbia River basin salmon species. Prior to listing, (in May 1991) the IDFG collected Redfish Lake out-migrating smolts and the four anadromous adults that returned in August 1991 to initiate the conservation program.
Founding contributors for the captive broodstock program were all of the wild anadromous (fish that originated in freshwater, grew up in the ocean and came back as adults to spawn) sockeye that returned to the basin during the 1990s -- 16 in all – as well as several hundred out-migrating sockeye smolts and 26 “residual,” nonanadromous sockeye salmon.
Since the 1990s the program has hatched out sockeye eggs and reared fish to adulthood in hatcheries in Idaho and Washington. Some of the adults are used to restart the hatchery cycle and some are released into Redfish Lake to spawn. It has also employed a variety of strategies for outplanting non-adult fish, including smolts, pre-smolts that overwinter in lakes before migrating and fertilized eggs.
The first hatchery-produced adults were outplanted in Redfish Lake in 1993 and the first hatchery hatchery-produced juveniles were planted in 1994.
The first hatchery-produced anadromous adults came back in 1999. The Snake River sockeye travel more than 900 miles down the Salmon, Snake and Columbia rivers, dropping more than 6,500 feet in elevation in the process. Their return requires that uphill climb. They are the southernmost North American sockeye population.
Adult returns were very modest from 1999 through 2007, ranging from 3 to 27 annually except for a spike of 257 in 2000.
But the returns to the Stanley basin then jumped to 650 in 2008, 833 in 2009 and then to more than 1,300 last year, including 178 unmarked fish that were believed to be born in the wild.
By far the most productive juvenile release strategy has been the smolt releases, producing smolt-to-adult returns that are significantly higher than the other strategies. The pre-smolt and eyed-egg outplanting “will be discontinued as they have not performed well in the past,” Kline said.
Even better yet are the SARs for fish that hatched out in Redfish Lake. Smolt releases in 1996, 2004, 2005 and 2006 produced SARs ranging from 0.35 to 0.78 percent (0.10 percent equals 1 adult back for every thousand smolts out). SARs for naturally produced fish rose from only .39 percent in 1996 to 0.84, 1.50 and 1.92 percent in 2004, 2005 and 2006, respectively.
The wild fish production “is getting into the area (2 percent or better) we call replacement,” a level close to sustaining themselves, Kline said.
“You can’t duplicate what Mother Nature can do on her own,” Kline said of the superior SARs of fish born in the wild. “There’s no way you can duplicate the natural template in the hatchery.”
The idea is to put out enough smolts to boost the anadromous fish return so more spawn naturally, and fewer captive fish are needed to seed the spawning beds.
“When the smolt producing machine is fully functional,” the program enters that re-colonization phase, Kline said. That means the generation of enough anadromous adult returns to meet broodstock and escapement objectives to lakes.
Recovery is the ultimate goal, with the objective of returning an average of least 2,000 wild fish per year over two generations. NOAA Fisheries’ recovery criteria for the species requires 1,000 of those fish to be produced in Redfish Lake and 500 each in two additional lakes -- Pettit and Alturas.
The IDFG says Springfield Hatchery will contribute significantly by:
--Establishing a self-sustaining anadromous broodstock which will reduce the reliance on the captive broodstock;
-- Increase population fitness and reduce the risks associated with domestication selection, and
-- Provide adults to out-plant to lakes to increase natural spawning and juvenile production.
The longest term goal is to re-establish a natural population that can be de-listed and even provide treaty and sport harvest opportunities.
The Springfield Hatchery would be developed at the site of an abandoned trout hatchery that was purchased by the IDFG with funding from BPA. Functioning artesian wells would supply the quality and quantity of groundwater necessary to meet sockeye production objectives.
Because of the water source, the site is “pretty ideal for sockeye culture,” Kline said.
The planned work includes the addition of pumps at six well, a 13,620 square feet hatchery/office, 2,830 square feet shop/storage, three new staff residences, a degassing head box and hilled water system, 16 early rearing troughs, 24 production raceways, effluent treatment and site work and utilities.
Preliminary analysis estimates are that planning and design/environmental compliance costs will be about $1.3 million and construction and capital equipment about $13.8 million. Kline cautioned, however, the estimates are very preliminary and due for considerable fine-tuning. The MOA earmarked $1 million for planning and $8.5 million set aside for construction.
The IDFG would, ideally, like to complete steps 2 and 3 (a funding determination) by late this year and start construction in the spring of 2012. That aggressive timeline would allow completion of the facility by the end of 2012 so that it could take in eggs from that year’s return.
If everything fell into place, and Kline admits it is a very ambitious schedule, the first full-term smolts could be sent toward the ocean in May 2014 and the first age-4 adults could return in August 2016.