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Will Getting Some Steelhead To Spawn Twice Improve Numbers? Yakama Nation Project Looks For Answers
Posted on Friday, November 07, 2014 (PST)

The Northwest Power and Conservation Council gave its conditional approval for the continuation of funding for a Yakama Nation project aimed at determining whether beleaguered upper Columbia steelhead populations can get a reproductive boost through the “reconditioning” of fish with an urge to spawn a second time.


Unlike salmon species that spawn once and die, steelhead in relatively small numbers have been known to spawn, head downriver from Columbia River tributaries and then at points relatively unknown turn around and head upstream on a second spawning mission.


Because of their physically depleted condition, few complete that mission. In a response to a question Tuesday from the Council, the Yakama Nation’s Matt Abrahamse said that probably fewer than 1 percent of the steelhead that spawn in streams such as central Washington’s Methow River successfully make the loop to spawn a second time. Abrahamse is project lead for the Yakama Nation.


The goal of the Yakama Nation steelhead “kelt” reconditioning program is to capture potential second-time spawners and hold them at a Methow area facility for about six months so that they can be fed and built back to full strength. The fish are then released back into the river system with the belief that they will have a greater chance of reproducing than they would have had if they had been left in-river.


Funding for the project was recommended by the Council as part of the four-state panel’s project review of Jan. 12, 2010 and the Research, Monitoring and Evaluation and Artificial Production Project Review on June 12, 2011.


The funding recommendations came with qualifications largely linked to the need for the project proponents to report progress toward addressing theories about reproductive benefits that might be derived from the reconditioning work.


The Council and its Independent Scientific Review Panel make recommendations regarding proposals for funding under the Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program. The Bonneville Power Administration makes final funding decisions. BPA markets power generated at federal hydro projects in the Columbia River basin. It funds such projects with revenues from ratepayers as mitigation for impacts to fish and wildlife from the existence and operation of the dams.


The YN kelt reconditioning research is a so-called “Accord” project. BPA in 2008 signed memorandums of agreement with a number of Northwest states and tribes promising funding for specific projects over a 10-year time frame. The funding associated with this accord project totals $5,184,948 in expense funds for Fiscal Year 2008 through 2017. The Fiscal Year 2014 expense budget for the project is $454,086 and has a performance period of Feb. 1, 2014 to Jan. 31, 2015.


The project’s goal is to enhance the abundance and life history diversity of naturally produced steelhead in the Upper Columbia River by taking advantage of their unique ability to repeat spawn (i.e., iteroparity),” according an Oct. 28 memo prepared for the Council by NPCC program implementation manager Mark Fritsch.


The YN project description notes that rates of iteroparity for UCR populations are extremely low, likely due to high mortality imposed by such factors as extreme energetic demand, degraded habitat quality, and post-spawning migration through the Columbia River hydropower system.


The project assists in satisfying commitments under the 2008 Federal Columbia River Power System biological opinion. That NOAA Fisheries document proposes actions that it deems necessary to avoid jeopardizing the survival of species, such as wild upper Columbia steelhead, that are protected under the Endangered Species Act.


The YN project proposes to recondition post-spawned wild steelhead (kelts) in captivity under a long-term treatment program (6 to 10 months), monitor their condition and reproductive state, release them to spawn naturally, and track their post-release contribution to natural spawner abundance. Natural-origin steelhead kelts will be collected from hatchery broodstock that are live-spawned and at locations known to encounter kelts, such as UCR hydroproject fish bypass systems, tributary smolt traps, and weirs.


The intent is to determine “if we could increase the number of naturally spawning steelhead on the spawning grounds,” Abrahamse said of a program that has largely been focused in the Methow and its tributaries.


The Council in its 2010 recommendations said that are “based on the current level of science and the needs for answers, the Council recommends that the proposal proceed with implementation as outlined above to provide information to the current debate on the reproductive viability of reconditioned kelts.”


The panel required a 2014 progress check-in, which was provided by the Yakama Nation and reviewed by the ISRP.


“The benefit of reconditioning kelts remains to be determined and the ISRP’s extensive review continues to challenge and encourage the Yakama Nation and the region to address the questions asked in their qualification,” Fritsch’s memo says.


-- The prior recommendation, by the ISRP, to establish methods to assess how kelt reconditioning may benefit population growth, abundance, spatial structure, and diversity still needs to be addressed.

-- Some modeling and a power analysis need to be conducted to clarify how many juvenile and F1 adults should be sampled to detect meaningful differences in the breeding and reproductive success of HOR (hatchery origin), NOR (natural origin), and reconditioned NOR females.

-- Methods to assess the fat levels, maturation timing, fecundity, egg size, and gamete viability of the project’s reconditioned kelts need to be developed and implemented. The fate of non-maturing or skip-repeat reconditioned fish also should be disclosed.

-- Viable plans are needed to monitor the homing and straying rates of reconditioned kelts released by the project.

-- Experiments are needed to discover the best geographic locations

and times of year for release of the project’s reconditioned fish.


The Council recommendation made Tuesday “is conditioned that the Yakama Nation and Bonneville address the questions raised by the ISRP within the current scope and budget of the project as part of annual reports and future reviews. In addition, the Fish and Wildlife Committee requests that Bonneville and NOAA provide an update and status review,in 2016, of this kelt project and how it relates to meeting the intent of RPA42.2 of the 2008 BiOp.”


Washington Council members Phil Rockefeller and Tom Karier both stressed that the exploration is necessary.


“Steelhead are in trouble,” Rockefeller said of the Upper Columbia stock.


Idaho Council member Bill Booth said the researchers need to better answer the key question – is reconditioning going to work as theorized.


“I’m looking forward to having the five qualifications addressed thoroughly in 2016,” Booth said.


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