Yakama Nation Fisheries biologists on Wednesday begin releasing approximately 280 “reconditioned” adult steelhead into the Yakima River basin so that the fish – called kelt – can select mates and spawn again.
The Yakama program tries to boost the fitness of spawned out steelhead that can, unlike salmon species, go through their reproductive cycle more than once. Salmon die soon after spawning.
Less than 2 percent of steelhead are estimated to successfully repeat spawn above the Columbia River mainstem dams because passage through the system likely wears on what are already very weary fish. When steelhead spawn they use much of their energy-providing fat reserves for laying eggs.
The recondition process begins in spring when Yakama Fisheries biologists trap tired, skinny female steelhead that are heading upstream to spawn again. Fish are held for six to eight months in fresh water tanks and fed before being releasing in October with weight gained and a new batch of eggs developed. From there, the fish will spawn in Yakima basin tributaries.
Such kelt programs are relatively new and have some newly found biological glitches.
Some of the kelt produced no eggs. But a new scientific steelhead finding by tribal biologists confirmed that that is natural – some steelhead will skip a year in which they develop eggs (skip spawners). Further research and a research paper on the topic are in the works.
Historically, Yakima basin had returns of at least 80,500 summer steelhead, according to a 1996 Bonneville Power Administration environmental impact statement. BPA funds much of the kelt work.
This year, the Columbia River tribes closed Columbia River mainstem Zone 6 fisheries early because they had harvested their allowed limit of B-run steelhead, fish largely bound for the Clearwater River in Idaho.
“Even with the smaller wild steelhead run returning to Bonneville Dam this year, we project the Yakima return to be 5,500 steelhead,” said Dave Fast, senior research scientist with Yakama Nation Fisheries. “We see strong potential of a 5th year in a row of steelhead runs greater than 4,700.”
“This is up from the previous 10 year average of average of 2,800.”
These Yakima-basin numbers correspond to the region-wide information for repeat steelhead spawners.
“Throughout the Columbia River Basin we have a low return year for steelhead overall, but the kelt run was pretty strong throughout the basin,” said Doug Hatch, senior fisheries scientist with Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
“The Northwest leads steelhead kelt projects, and in addition to Yakama Nation work, Nez Perce Tribe just released 69 steelhead in the Snake River Basin,” Hatch said.
The Colville Tribe is also involved in reconditioning kelt for release into the Okanogan basin in north-central Washington, Hatch said.
And a reconditioning project is under way at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Coleman National Fish Hatchery near Sacramento that entails air spawning – the removal in the hatchery of eggs from a live fish so that it can be reconditioned and later released.
Yakama Nation’s steelhead project in the Yakima basin began in 2000 and expanded to the Wenatchee and Methow basins.
For generations, Yakama tribal members depended on trout and would go trout fishing in the creeks. The Yakamas want to improve steelhead, an ocean-bound trout species.
“We envision the future for our younger generations to be able to go out and catch a trout to share with families,” says Gerald Lewis, Yakama Nation tribal councilman. “Traditionally, when fish supplies were low, steelhead were there.”
“Further fish passage and habitat improvements through the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan is a testimony to what we all can do to make increasing fish numbers a reality.”
Yakama Nation works with partners in a multi-tiered approach to the kelt research.
Beginning this week, Yakama Nation biologists will work with research scientists from Portland and University of Idaho to take blood samples and weigh the fish, as well attach radio-tags and PIT tags. Some of the released fish will be tracked to their spawning areas.
Through bloodwork, biologists are able to determine which steelhead did not develop eggs a second-year, the so-called skip-spawners. The Yakama Nation will hold approximately 50-75 skip-spawners steelhead for further evaluation.
Joe Blodgett, Yakama tribal member and fish biologist has been a project leader since the beginning and has overcome challenges.
“This fish collection facility is probably the only place in the Columbia Basin where the fish fall into our laps,” said Blodgett. That facility is on the Yakima at Prosser, Wash. “An initial challenge was to get the steelhead on feed as they will just starve themselves. We tried a lot of different food to trigger a feeding impulse; finally we fed them krill, a shrimp-like species.”
These early wins combined with ongoing research and return numbers means there is hope for steelhead.
“We want to help these wild steelhead have another chance to survive and give viable off-spring,” Blodgett said.