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Hatchery Fish Trucked
to Clearwater Spawning Grounds

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - June 15, 2001

Trucks filled with surplus hatchery salmon began regular treks upstream last week as part of an effort to give thousands of the fish a chance to spawn naturally in the rivers and streams that make up central Idaho's Clearwater River Basin.

The Nez Perce Tribe, which is leading the effort, intends in the coming weeks to release as many as 23,000 spring/summer chinook salmon adults in the Clearwater and in the Salmon River subbasin. The tribe estimate those hatchery fish could build and deposit their eggs in as many as 4,600 redds to supplement natural production in those streams. The progeny of the outplanted hatchery stock would migrate to the ocean in 2003 and return themselves as adults in 2005 and 2006 to seek out those same spawning grounds.

The 23,000 fish goal is dependent on the number of fish that survive their upstream migration through eight Columbia and Snake River federal hydroelectric and past the nets and fishing poles cast out to harvest the biggest upriver spring chinook return on record.

As the hatchery portion of the run arrives at state and federal hatcheries in Idaho, the necessary number will be collected for broodstock. An agreement between state and federal agencies and the tribes calls for much of the balance to be loaded onto tanker trucks and released in appropriate spawning grounds.

"We felt like we could use them all," said Dave Johnson, the tribe's production coordinator. The first of two truckloads last week left Rapid River Hatchery June 5 with about 400 salmon on board. The truck, after a daylong road trip that took them into Montana and then back into Idaho, delivered the fish to the Upper Selway River, a major tributary in the Clearwater's headwaters.

"It's a huge river -- probably one of the safer areas we can put fish this year," Johnson said of the surplus fish distribution plan. The plan also calls for a large number of fish to be released in the upper Lochsa River, South Fork of the Clearwater and mainstem Clearwater -- and tributaries.

Another truck steered toward Clearwater tributaries early this week -- 500-gallon tanks filled hatchery reared adult spring chinook. The process will continue through the summer as salmon become available beyond what is needed caught by anglers and needed for hatchery broodstock.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game's anadromous fish manager, Sharon Kiefer, said that the release sites are those believed most appropriate, both in terms of minimizing competition with naturally spawning fish and affording the hatchery outplants a chance to thrive.

"There's a lot of underutilized habitat" in the upper Selway and Lochsa," Kiefer said. As relatively high-elevation, headwaters, the likelihood is that the rivers will remain cool and not become dewatered during the summer and fall of 2001, despite severe drought conditions that prevail throughout the Columbia Basin.

"These are not small, perennial streams," she said.

The Clearwater does have naturally spawning spring chinook stocks returning, though they are not listed under the Endangered Species Act as are other Snake River and Upper Columbia River populations. The indigenous stock of the Clearwater was extirpated with construction of Lewiston Dam early last century. The current natural spawning population is derived from past outplants of hatchery stocks, primarily from fish developed at Rapid River Hatchery from upper Snake River stocks, whose upriver passage was blocked, and natural existence ended, with construction of the Hells Canyon hydro complex on the Snake River. The reintroduction was triggered in the early 1960s, with some attempts even earlier, Kiefer said.

The status of the naturally spawning populations "goes up and down very similar to (salmon stocks) in the rest of the Snake Basin," Kiefer said. When migration conditions are good, numbers rebound.

Both Johnson and Kiefer said that said that such outplanting has occurred in the Clearwater in past years, but the number of surplus fish used numbered in the hundreds.

"I don't know of anybody who's moved out this many salmon," Johnson said. The project is the result of discussions this late winter and spring between Columbia Basin tribes and state and federal agencies that fund and/or operate hatcheries. The talks included the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, both with responsibilities to protect fish listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The intent was to devise plans for using an anticipated record run of upriver spring chinook of which a vast majority are hatchery origin.

"There was pressure on the co-managers to do something that didn't involve killing fish," Johnson said, citing disputes that arose last year, with return of considerably smaller magnitude, over the "clubbing" of surplus hatchery fish. The lower Columbia-Snake treaty tribes have long argued that more of the surplus hatchery fish be allowed to spawn naturally rather than dispatched and distributed to food banks and others, used as fertilizer along stream banks and put to other uses.

A total of 392,000 spring chinook passed Bonneville Dam through May 31 -- the highest total since counts began in 1938. It is estimated that 418,000 upriver chinook entered the Columbia Basin bound for hatcheries and spawning grounds above Bonneville. The fish stream continued upriver, with more than 166,000 adults and 2,673 "jacks" having passed the lower Snake River's Lower Granite Dam through Monday.

The Snake River return through the end of May was already more than double the highest return recorded in that basin since dam counts began in 1962. Most of the fish are destined for Rapid River, McCall, Clearwater, Dworshak, and Kooskia hatcheries on the Salmon and Clearwater rivers.

The Nez Perce plan now being implemented is updated from one earlier set out in a spring fishery agreement hammered out between tribes, states and federal agencies that are party to U.S. v. Oregon. With run projections in preseason increasing from 360,000 upriver spring chinook to more than 400,000 in reality, the tribe asked for a more aggressive outplanting plan.

"We thought there would be a lot of support from the co-managers to push the envelope," Johnson said. The revised plan did gain support, though details regarding the Salmon River basin outplanting scheme are still being discussed.

"We're still looking at various options" for the South Fork of the Salmon, Kiefer said. Concerns remain about the potential impacts of outplanted fish on South Fork summer chinook listed under the ESA. The scenario outlined by the tribe calls for as many as 18,000 fish being released in the Clearwater basin and 5,000 in the Salmon River subbasin.

The IDFG credits a high spring runoff from Idaho's mountain snowpacks in 1999 with improving the survival of the chinook as they migrated through eight big dams and reservoirs in the lower Snake and Columbia rivers to the Pacific Ocean. Favorable ocean conditions too helped that year class flourish and return to freshwater in unprecedented numbers.

The strong runs has been a boon to fishers with tribal and non-Indian harvesting more fish than they have in decades both in the mainstem and in tributaries.

In the seasons from 1954 through 1962, Idaho's anglers caught an average of 20,444 spring and summer chinook on 5,000 miles of streams. They were all wild chinook salmon, fish that now must be returned to the water unharmed because they are protected by federal and Idaho laws.

The salmon season has been closed completely for 14 of the last 26 years and the average catch in years when we did fish was only 1,151 salmon. The maximum number of stream miles open to fishing prior to 2001 has been 173 in the limited seasons held since 1987 and about 160 of those miles were on the Clearwater River alone. Even this year, anglers cannot fish the once famous salmon waters of the Middle Fork and Upper Salmon River.

As of June 3, an estimated 5,460 hatchery salmon have been harvested in the sport fishing season on the Lower Salmon River, 7,260 in the Little Salmon, and 13,060 in the Clearwater River drainage. The Lower Salmon River season closes June 10. At this time an estimated 4,800 South Fork hatchery chinook have crossed Lower Granite Dam. The Department expects a total of about 13,000 wild and hatchery chinook to migrate to the South Fork of the Salmon River this year.

Most fish will average about 12 pounds but about 10 percent of the run could push 25 pounds, according to the IDFG.

The Idaho chinook season started April 21 on the lower Salmon River from Riggins to the Hammer Creek boat ramp near Whitebird, the Clearwater River from Lewiston upstream to the confluence of the Selway and Lochsa Rivers, and the Snake River from Dug Bar upstream to Hell's Canyon Dam. The North Fork below Dworshak dam and the South Fork Clearwater River also opened April 21.

The Lochsa River opened on May 26. The season will remain open until Aug 5 (except for the lower Salmon River, which will probably close on June 10) or until further notice.

The Nez Perce Tribe has submitted a proposal through the Bonneville Power Administration's 2001 "action plan" process. The one-time process is designed to address impacts to ESA listed anadromous species and to unlisted fish directly affected by a power emergency declaration prompted by drought conditions. The declaration allows the federal hydrosystem to limit operations, such as spill, designed to improve survival of migration salmon and steelhead.

The tribe has requested $195,000 for the transportation effort, to monitor the spawning success of the hatchery outplants and to monitor tribal harvests at Rapid, Clearwater, South Fork Salmon and Imnaha rivers.

Barry Espenson
Hatchery Fish Trucked to Clearwater Spawning Grounds
Columbia Basin Bulletin, June 15, 2001

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