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Nez Perce Tribe Seeking Next Step for Steelhead
Kelt Facility to Capture, Recondition Spawned Fish

by Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin, December 2, 2016

A hatchery steelhead soon meets its end in the hatchery from which it came. The Nez Perce Tribe proposes to capture and recondition spawned steelhead in the Snake 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 tribe proposes to do this by capturing steelhead heading back out to sea, known as kelts, holding them in hatchery ponds until fall and then releasing them back into the river, allowing them to migrate directly back to their spawning grounds without having gone back to sea.

Doug Hatch of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission told the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's Fish and Wildlife Committee last week in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, that RPAs 33 and 42 of the 2008 Columbia River Hydro System BiOp call for improving the B-run steelhead population in the Snake River to 6 percent by artificially reconditioning kelt steelhead and/or improving instream passage through the hydro system.

Hatch was before the Committee to justify eventually spending nearly $2 million for a kelt reconditioning facility at the Nez Perce Tribal Hatchery, located on the Clearwater River in Idaho, but his initial request is to proceed with design of the facility, a year-long process.

At the meeting, Council staff recommended that the Fish and Wildlife Committee approve the Snake River Basin Steelhead Kelt Reconditioning Facility Master Plan, as long as the Tribe and CRITFC address four issues raised by the Independent Scientific Review Panel in their review of September 27. The staff description of the project is at

In that review (, 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.

It also said the Tribal plan 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.

Hatch said that less than 50,000 steelhead on their way to the Snake River passed Bonneville Dam this year, all listed under the federal endangered species act. Of the Snake River steelhead, about 45 percent begin their trip to the ocean after spawning. However, at Lower Granite Dam, the repeat spawner rate -- those that actually return back to spawning grounds -- is less than one-half percent.

On the other hand, 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.

"There is a theme here," Hatch said. "The higher in the river, the lower the kelt return."

Kelt stage steelhead are abundant in the Columbia River, but repeat spawners are rare, Hatch said in his presentation to the Committee. "Abundant kelts are a no-take opportunity to increase natural steelhead production," meaning that no damage is done to natural fish in the collection process.

The process starts with collecting kelts at weirs or juvenile bypass systems at Snake River dams on their downstream trip to the ocean in the spring after they have spawned. Kelts are held in circular tanks and cared for by hatchery staff.

"We have found that fish collected that are in good condition survived well," Hatch said. "But those in poor condition on recapture died. Also, larger fish survived 6.8 percent more than smaller fish."

He added that as many as 90 percent of kelts are female, that males stay in the river and are "basically exhausted."

Kelts in the facility are released back to the river in the fall where they will find their way back to spawning grounds and spawn with the natural run the next spring or they will wait in the river to the following spring to spawn.

The potential benefits to the full 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.

The Nez Perce Tribal Hatchery will construct six circular tanks for the reconditioning and other tanks for sorting.

"We're asking for a recommendation from the Council to go to a final design," Hatch said.

"This is an RPA in the BiOp that can provide survival benefits in the Snake River," said Bruce Suzumoto of NOAA Fisheries in supporting the Tribes' proposal. "And it increases the genetic diversity of the species as it reduces the risk by providing a safety net at the facility."

The total construction budget for the proposed facility is $1,987,100. Capital and expense funds include study implementation, planning and design, construction, and operation and maintenance, totaling $16,261,613. The money is reserved in the Accords budgets between the CRITFC and the FCRPS Action Agencies, Council information says. Future costs for O&M at the kelt reconditioning facility is estimated to be about $720,600 annually. Annual M&E expenses will be developed as part of the next submittal and review.

The Fish and Wildlife Committee approved moving the project forward. The next step is approval by the full Council at its December 13 -- 14 meeting in Portland.

Related Sites:
Repeat Spawners: Study Looks At How Improving Steelhead 'Kelt' Survival Could Aid At-Risk Populations by Staff, Columbia Basin Bulletin 7/22/16
Will Getting Some Steelhead To Spawn Twice Improve Numbers? Yakama Nation Project Looks For Answers by Staff, Columbia Basin Bulletin 11/7/14

Study Looks at Ways to Reduce Hatchery Steelhead Adaptation to Captivity, Increase Survival
Columbia Basin Bulletin, December 2, 2016

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