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Council Approves Master Plan For Snake River Steelhead Kelt Reconditioning At Nez Perce Hatchery
Posted on Thursday, December 22, 2016 (PST)

A facility at the Nez Perce Hatchery on the Clearwater River in Idaho that will recondition spawned Snake River steelhead, known as kelts, was given the go-ahead by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council at its Portland meeting December 14.


The facility, proposed by the Tribes and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, will capture and recondition steelhead from the river to increase the steelhead return rate from 0.4 percent to at least 6 percent to meet a federal biological opinion reasonable and prudent alternative.


The Tribes propose to do this by capturing steelhead heading back out to sea after spawning, known as kelts, holding them in hatchery ponds until fall and then releasing those that are ready to spawn again back into the river, allowing them to migrate directly back to their spawning grounds without having gone back to sea.


The Council’s Fish and Wildlife Committee had approved the three-step Snake River Basin Steelhead Kelt Reconditioning Facility Master Plan at its meeting in November and recommended that the full Council also approve the project in December.


The approval allows the Tribes and CRITFC to proceed with planning activities for the facility’s construction.


“This has been an interesting journey and has never been done before,” Ritchie Graves told the Council in support of the Tribes’ Master Plan. Graves is chief of the Columbia Hydropower Branch at NOAA Fisheries. “The science is in its infancy on this.”


Graves said the facility supports RPAs 33 and 42 of the 2008 Columbia River Hydro System BiOp that calls for improving the B-run steelhead population (mostly wild fish) in the Snake River to 6 percent by artificially reconditioning kelt steelhead and/or improving instream passage through the hydro system.


To reach that 6 percent goal, the Tribes would need to recondition 180 kelts per year, Graves said. The Tribes’ hope to improve on that plan and release 224 kelts per year.


“This looks like a very important project that has the metrics for success,” said Tom Karier, Washington Council member as he gave his approval for the project.


The Nez Perce and CRITFC submitted the master plan to the Council March 28, which was then passed along to the Independent Scientific Review Panel for review. In that review which was completed September 27,, the ISRP agreed that the Nez Perce Tribal Hatchery is the best option to locate the kelt reconditioning facility, but added that the facility will need to alter its current hatchery management plan and it identified issues the Tribes will need to address. It needs a monitoring and evaluation plan with an adaptive management component, biologically-based escapement goals that account for density dependence and more information on the level of effort it will take to collect the natural-run kelts and how they will be identified.


The staff description of the project is at


The $1,987,100 price of the facility will pay for the installation of six twenty-foot circular tanks and a building to support the long-term reconditioning of up to 750 kelts, supporting the goal of an annual release of 180 reconditioned B-run kelts, according to Council staff.


Overall, however, the project cost is $16,261,613. Most, about $14 million, has been spent since 2008 on study implementation, planning and design, construction, and operation and maintenance. The money is reserved in Columbia River Accords budgets in which the Bonneville Power Administration funds state and tribal fish and wildlife projects.


Annual operating and maintenance costs are estimated at $720,600, including an annual $70,600 of amortized costs anticipating asset replacements for such equipment as chiller and pumps. The Tribes will develop the annual monitoring and evaluation expenses as part of their next review.


Kelt stage steelhead are abundant in the Columbia River, but repeat spawners – those that actually make it back from the ocean – are rare. Of Snake River steelhead, about 45 percent begin their trip to the ocean after spawning. However, at Lower Granite Dam, the repeat spawner rate is less than one-half percent, according to Doug Hatch of CRITFC.


The repeat spawner rate is 17 percent (the kelt rate is unknown) on the Kalama River, 70 percent Kelt rate in the Yakima River with a repeat spawner rate of 3.4 percent, and 58 percent kelt rate for the Willamette River system with a repeat spawner rate of 1.3 to 12.4 percent.


About 85 percent of kelts are female.


The potential benefits to steelhead runs are significant. For example, early experiments on the Yakima River resulted in 14 times more kelts going back to spawn than if the fish had been left in the river to migrate back to the ocean. “For the Snake River, the benefit is more than 100 times,” Hatch said.


Also see:

--CBB, December 2, 2016, “Nez Perce Tribe Seeking Next Step For Steelhead Kelt Facility To Capture, Recondition Spawned Fish,”


--CBB, July 22, 2016, “Repeat Spawners: Study Looks At How Improving Steelhead ‘Kelt’ Survival Could Aid At-Risk Populations,”


--CBB, November 7, 2014, “Will Getting Some Steelhead To Spawn Twice Improve Numbers? Yakama Nation Project Looks For Answers,”


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