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Tribe's Hatchery Program
Bringing Back Snake Fall Chinook

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - September 13, 2002

The Nez Perce Tribe's hatchery supplementation program -- and to some extent Mother Nature -- can be credited for this year's fall chinook salmon count at Lower Granite Dam, which is expected to set a record with a return of 10,000 adult fish.

On Monday, 604 fall chinook were counted at the dam, located 20 miles northwest of Lewiston, Idaho, on the Snake River. That's higher than the total fall season counts in six individual years since the dam was built in 1975.

"For most years, the counts have been less than 1,000," said Stuart Ellis, fishery scientist with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. Snake River fall chinook have been listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act since 1992.

Ellis says this year's cumulative count at the dam already makes the fall chinook run the second highest count since the dam was built. The tally stood at 3,959 adult fall chinook and 432 "jacks" through Wednesday with more fish on the way.

"Last year, we set a record run with a dam count of 8,900 fall chinook, and this year will be more," Ellis said. "In 2000, we had 3,500 fish, and that was a record run."

The count through Wednesday at Ice Harbor was 7,108 adult fall chinook. Ice Harbor is the first hydro project the upriver migrants must pass after they enter the Snake from the Columbia River. Lower Granite in the fourth and final hydro hurdle for the fall chinook, and eighth overall in the Columbia-Snake system.

Ellis and other fishery managers attribute the high numbers to the Nez Perce Tribe's supplementation program, which has outplanted millions of fall chinook yearlings and subyearlings from the Lyons Ferry Hatchery throughout the upper Snake River since 1996. An Idaho Power mitigation project has also begun to see returns from juvenile fall chinook outplanted below the power company's Hells Canyon complex of dams on the Snake River.

The Nez Perce program began as a result of the 1994 litigation and a subsequent negotiated settlement between the parties to United States v. Oregon, the federal court case regarding the tribes' treaty fishing rights. In 1995, the parties agreed to begin outplanting hatchery-reared Snake River fall chinook above Lower Granite Dam, according to a CRITFC press release. Since 1996, fall chinook have been outplanted to Pittsburgh Landing and Captain John's Rapids, both on the mainstem Snake River, and at Big Canyon on the Clearwater River.

The Nez Perce Tribe has taken the lead in the Snake River fall chinook supplementation program at these facilities. On Oct. 9, the tribe will dedicate the Nez Perce Tribal Hatchery on the Clearwater River. The program has largely been funded by the Bonneville Power Administration through the Northwest Power Planning Council's fish and wildlife program. The hatchery, which includes the primary facility and five satellite facilities, cost about $16 million.

With the addition of the hatchery, the Snake River fall chinook supplementation program will outplant more than 4 million fall chinook above Lower Granite Dam in 2003.

Mike Matylewich, head of CRITFC's fish management department, also credited a scaled-down Canadian fishery off Vancouver Island and "a couple good water years" between 1996 and 1998 for the big returns to the upper Snake River.

"All of that pushed things in the right direction," Matylewich said.

In addition to increased returns, counts of redds -- nests of fish eggs covered with gravel, indicating a spawning area -- have increased each year as well, said Dave Johnson, fisheries program manager for the Nez Perce Tribe.

"We're getting a good distribution of those redds," Johnson said. "The supplementation fish are returning to the release areas and spawning, indicating that this cooperative rebuilding effort is leading to recovery."

Johnson says progeny of outplanted fish also are returning to spawn.

"We believe we're going to see more of that every year from now on."

The first of progeny of outplanted fish to return as adults -- "fish that count, in listing language," Johnson says -- spawned last year. They were produced by the fish that were released in June 1996 and returned to spawn in 1998. The progeny would have left the Snake River Basin as subyearling in the spring of 1999 and returned last year as "two-ocean" adults to spawn.

This year's "progeny" that are returning to spawn would include "three-ocean" fish from the 1996 bloodline and two-ocean fish that are the offspring of the 1997 releases. Johnson said that the National Marine Fisheries Service is now processing data to determine what share of this year's spawners are hatchery releases and what share are natural spawners and the second-generation of outplanted fish. Under NMFS guidelines, that second generation, and future generations, are considered a part of the wild stock. A certain portion of subsequent hatchery releases were marked by various means, including coded-wire tags, so that a wild vs. hatchery spawning ratio can be extrapolated.

The NMFS continues to develop its recovery plan for Snake River fall chinook, but the stock likely will achieve recovery before the plan is completed, said Don Sampson, CRITFC executive director.

"The Nez Perce Tribe has worked diligently for many years to bring this essential Snake River species back to its historic numbers, and its efforts are finally paying off," Sampson said.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game's regional fisheries manager, Ed Schriever, likewise said the hatchery program shows promise, but says that "everyone needs to take a deep breath" as regards supplementation.

"The true test of supplementation is when you stop," Schriever said of the hatchery practice's value as a recovery tool. He said there is no doubt that the outplanting of hatchery fish will produce adults, particularly when juvenile migrants are buoyed by augmented flows from Dworshak reservoir and mainstem and ocean conditions are favorable.

"There is habitat that was unseeded and they are doing that," Schriever said. That true test, however, is if the progeny of those outplanted fish also come back and reproduce at rates that can sustain the wild population above ESA recovery goals.

"At some point we would hope the program meets recovery goals" and ultimately allows the harvest of marked hatchery fish, Schriever said.

Johnson said that it's unfair to expect the population to totally sustain itself without some sort of boost from hatchery fish.

"They're facing the same obstacles as the wild fish faced," he said of Columbia-Snake mainstem habitat that has been vastly altered with the construction of eight hydroelectric projects. The climatic and ocean conditions that helped the revival effort is also likely to shift again as it has historically.

Fall chinook continue to rush up the Columbia River and its tributaries in large numbers. More than 660,000 fish are expected to reach the mouth of the river, including nearly 274,000 "upriver bright" fall chinook that spawn primarily in the Hanford Reach. The preseason forecast included an expected upriver (above Bonneville) return of nearly 92,000 Mid-Columbia brights, 45,700 Bonneville upriver brights, 46,100 pool upriver bright and 136,000 Bonneville pool hatchery (tule) fall chinook in addition to the URBs.

Through Tuesday, 344,731fall chinook adults and 17,961 jacks had been counted at Bonneville Dam. Daily counts at the dam have averaged more than 20,000 adults per day.

The IDFG has alerted the state's sport steelhead anglers of the expected appearance of fall-run chinook and coho salmon in area rivers this fall. The tribal hatchery program is also being employed in an attempt to build flagging coho populations.

Some of these fish will have missing adipose fins, similar to hatchery steelhead, but there is no open season for fall chinook and coho salmon, and they must be released immediately.

The easiest way to distinguish a chinook salmon from a steelhead is by checking the lower gum line of the jaw. If the lower gum is black, it's a chinook. Using the gum line test, identification can be made quickly without taking the fish out of the water, according to the IDFG.

Another feature that helps differentiate chinook salmon from steelhead is the spotting on the back and tail. The dark spots on the back of a chinook are blotchy and irregular in shape. On a steelhead, the spots are rounded and more uniform. The black spots on the upper part of the tail fin of a chinook are large in comparison to the spots on the tail of a steelhead. Fall chinook may range in size from 5 to 40 pounds.

Coho salmon usually have dark gums also, but the easiest distinguishing mark is the tail fin. On a steelhead, black spots are distributed throughout the tail fin. On a coho salmon, spots appear only on the upper lobe of the fin, if at all. A second identifier is the anal fin, located on the underside of the fish in front of the tailfin. On a steelhead, the trailing edge of the anal fin lines up perpendicular to the fish's body, while the trailing edge of a coho's anal fin slants toward the body.

The steelhead outlook is also bright with 448,000 -- including 126,000 wild or listed fish -- expected to pass Bonneville Dam on their way upriver. That would be the second highest count on record since counts began in 1938. Already, through Wednesday, 372,721 steelhead (including 121,541 wild fish) had passed Bonneville. Of that number, 68,222 (18,834 wild) had reached Ice Harbor and 50,008 (15,894) had passed Lower Granite. Daily Counts over the past week have ranged from 1,00 to over 2,000.

The expected return to Idaho is about 170,000 steelhead. That would be about twice the 10-year average, subtracting last year's record run of 630,200 steelhead above Bonneville, according to the IDFG. About 85,000 steelhead at Lower Granite Dam is the average, without considering the 260,000 that showed up last year.

The CRITFC is the technical support and coordinating agency for fishery management policies of the Columbia Basin's four treaty tribes: the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, and the Nez Perce Tribe. Formed in 1977 and based in Portland, CRITFC employs biologists, other scientists, public information specialists, policy analysts, and administrators who work in fisheries research and analyses, advocacy, planning and coordination, harvest control and law enforcement.

Link information:

Barry Espenson
Tribe's Hatchery Program Bringing Back Snake Fall Chinook
Columbia Basin Bulletin, September 13, 2002

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