Hatchery Recaptures Build
by Pete Zimowsky
CAMBRIDGE -- A 3-foot-long steelhead -- vibrant with glistening red, jade and black coloring -- rockets out of the cascading waters of the fish trap at Hells Canyon Dam on a 17-degree morning in November.
It's finally home after a 570-mile journey from the Pacific Ocean. The end of the journey for the tenacious steelhead and thousands like it in late fall means the beginning of the journey for future generations of the Snake River sea-run rainbow trout.
Fishery crews are feverishly gathering the anadromous fish at the trap at the bottom of 330-foot Hells Canyon Dam and trucking them 23 miles upstream to the Idaho Power's Oxbow Hatchery. The 5- to 7-pound and larger fish are measured, and their gender is determined. Technicians look to see whether the fish have a full top rear fin. It's the adipose fin and indicates it's a wild fish. Wild fish are returned to the Snake River along with any fall chinook that get into the trap. Some fish also may have coded wire tags that tell the hatchery of origin.
Technicians at the hatchery check each fish in less than a minute, then release the hatchery-reared steelhead in holding ponds. There they spend the winter and provide eggs in spring for steelhead production at the company's Niagara Springs Hatchery in Magic Valley.
Oxbow hatchery manager Jeff Seggerman, of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, said he needs 880,000 eggs from about 250 female steelies in the ponds. A female steelhead can produce 4,000 to 5,000 eggs. The eggs collected at Oxbow and nurtured at Niagara Springs will result in about 500,000 smolts -- 8-inch young steelhead -- that will be released a year later at Hells Canyon Dam in the spring of 2016. The Little Salmon River upstream from Riggins will also get about 300,000.
The young steelhead will begin the journey downstream to the ocean, and the life cycle will go on. Most of the fish will return to Hells Canyon Dam in the fall of 2017 after living in the ocean and feeding on its bounty. There they grow to almost four times their length and from ounces to pounds before heading back upstream as adults. The adults will produce eggs that will be gathered in the spring of 2018. And after a year in the hatchery, the offspring will go downstream in spring of 2019 for a year or two in the ocean.
It's an important and intense time of year at the Oxbow Hatchery, said Paul Abbott, senior hatchery biologist with Idaho Power, as he watched the trapping operation one day last week. Thousands of steelhead are migrating up the Snake River from the Pacific Ocean and literally bumping their noses against the dam.
The time is ripe to collect them.
In a fishy-smelling processing room at the hatchery, fish tails slap the surface of the water in a holding tank, and splashes go everywhere. Dalton Simrell, a fisheries technician from Halfway, Ore., nets a fish and puts it up on a table. "Male, 71 centimeters," he yells to Rosalie Bauer, a technician from Hailey. She writes down the information, and the fish goes into the holding pond.
"If you want a harvestable population, you have to take advantage of the survival benefit of the hatcheries," Abbott said.
Idaho Power and other biologists say that in the wild less than 5 percent of steelhead eggs hatch and survive to migrate to the ocean. At Niagara Springs, more than 80 percent of the eggs survive for the young fish to journey to the ocean.
Ironically, just downstream from the trap, Nathan Omsberg of Boise is trying to cast a bobber and jig in the Snake River with frozen fingers. Abbott's message isn't wasted on him. Several fish are jumping in the river right downstream from him.
"If we didn't have the hatchery program, we wouldn't be able to fish," he said.
The fish and the dramatic scenery in the 7,900-foot-deep, black-and-gray granite river canyon lured him down to the river. Steelhead fishing to him is the experience of the cold, harsh weather, grandeur of the river canyon and trying to entice a fish to bite.
"I fished four days straight, and people were pulling them out left and right," he said.
The fish returning to the trap at Hells Canyon, besides providing eggs for future fish, also bolster fishing opportunity elsewhere in the state. If hatchery goals are met, Fish and Game provides 1,000 of the adult surplus fish for anglers in the Boise River. Another 1,000 are given to the Nez Perce tribe for subsistence and 1,000 to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife for stocking in Hells Canyon Reservoir.
Hatchery programs bring a price tag. Idaho Power spends $4 million annually to maintain Oxbow Hatchery and its other hatcheries. Although the hatcheries are owned by the utility company, they are staffed by Fish and Game personnel. Salaries and expenses, such as trucks and other equipment, are provided by Idaho Power.
The company's other hatcheries include Rapid River Hatchery on a tributary of the Little Salmon River near Riggins, which produces spring chinook salmon. It annually provides 2.5 million spring chinook released at Rapid River, 350,000 for Hells Canyon Dam and 150,000 for the Little Salmon River.
Idaho Power's Niagara Springs Hatchery will also produce 800,000 steelhead for release in the Pahsimeroi River in addition to the fish that go into the Snake River in Hells Canyon and Little Salmon River.
Its Pahsimeroi Hatchery, between Challis and Salmon, produces a million summer chinook for release at the Pahsimeroi River.
Back to steelhead and where they end up. Fish and Game reports show that for the 2012-13 steelhead run year, steelies produced at Niagara Springs Hatchery made up about 33 percent of the total Snake River return above Lower Granite Dam and also contributed more than 31 percent of the statewide sport catch in Idaho.
They aren't the only steelhead hatcheries in the state. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service operates Hagerman National Fish Hatchery and, with the Nez Perce tribe, the Dworshak National Fish Hatchery at Orofino. Fish and Game also operates Magic Valley and Clearwater hatcheries. The 58-degree spring waters along the Snake River in Magic Valley are excellent for raising fish.
The total steelhead production from hatcheries located in Idaho amounts to more than 7.8 million smolts annually for downriver migration to the ocean. With the gauntlet of dams, slack water reservoirs, downriver anglers, degraded habitat and uncertain ocean conditions, only a fraction return. In 2013, about 108,000 crossed Lower Granite Dam, the last dam before Idaho's rivers. The 10-year average is around 180,000. Those numbers provide a harvest season for Idaho anglers.
Still, a debate goes on about hatchery fish versus wild fish.
It takes an active hatchery program to get more steelhead to anglers in the Snake River system.
However, proponents of wild fish say the fish that are born naturally in Idaho's rivers and streams are more adapted to whatever nature can throw at them. "Only the best survive," said Bert Bowler, a retired Fish and Game fisheries biologist who specializes in anadromous fish conservation.
Wild steelhead smolts have to forage for themselves and deal with predators and uncertain stream conditions, such as flooding, mud slides, logjams and drought and low water.
They are tough and are reproducing in the larger tributaries of the Snake River below Hells Canyon but not enough to support the numbers that anglers want to catch.
After Oxbow Dam was completed in 1961, adult steelhead were trapped at the dam and trucked upriver past Brownlee Dam with hopes they would go upstream and spawn, and their young would return downstream to a huge net just upstream from Brownlee Dam. The smolts would then be trucked back downstream below Oxbow Dam. This was the plan before Hells Canyon Dam, the last downstream dam in the complex was built. It didn't work. The smolts couldn't negotiate the 50 miles of slack water in Brownlee Reservoir.
As a result of the experiment, the focus was put on hatchery production, and Oxbow Hatchery was built in 1961 for anadromous fish. It was the first anadromous fish hatchery for Idaho Power and in the state of Idaho.
Despite the debate over wild or hatchery production, lots of steelhead are being produced in hatcheries around the state, and anglers like Omsberg say the hatchery program is ensuring a fishing season for steelhead.
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