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Steelhead recovering through Hood Canal program

By Christopher Dunagan
DeWatto, Washington (AP) 5-09

Sean Hildebrant aimed the heavy hose toward the sky, then watched as hundreds of 7-inch steelhead fry flew out in a geyser of water, landing smoothly in the Dewatto River.

In a few minutes, the tanker truck was empty. The 2-year-old fish suddenly found themselves in a much larger space than the tanks in which they had been reared. Soon, they will head out to Hood Canal and beyond.

These Dewatto steelhead are part of a diminishing Puget Sound population listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. They have become part of an elaborate experiment to see if steelhead populations can be restored to healthy numbers in Hood Canal.

The recovery program, started 11 years ago in the Hamma Hamma River, has yielded valuable lessons for steelhead hatcheries everywhere, according to Barry Berejikian, a researcher with the National Marine Fisheries Service. The Hamma Hamma effort has boosted the number of steelhead in the river from about 17 each year before 2001 to well more than 100 in recent years.

Hildebrant, of the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group, was part of a farewell contingent for the Dewatto steelhead, which were taken two years ago from wild steelhead nests in the river. Only a small fraction of the available eggs were removed from any of the gravelly nests, known as redds. The fish were hatched, fed and cared for at the Lilliwaup Hatchery, where manager Rick Endicott of Long Live the Kings and his staff kept a close watch on the precious brood.

“You never sleep,” Endicott said. “You lie in bed at night and listen to the rain, wondering if a flood could come and wipe everything out.”

Raising steelhead fry slowly for two years has its risks, but it more closely mimics natural conditions, said Berejikian.

“One of the criticisms we hear is that this is different from the way we operate hatcheries now,” he said. “But we are doing this for a reason. We are shooting for a more enlightened approach.”

Steelhead hatcheries typically feed their steelhead a heavy diet to boost their size for release after their first year. But the slowly fed 2 year olds seem to survive at a much higher rate. In fact, holding fish for an extra year appears to be so successful that it may become the norm – particularly for a new breed of hatcheries aimed at increasing natural populations rather than just producing fish for sport and tribal fisheries.

The fish released last week into the Dewatto River are the first of eight groups that will be taken as eggs and returned as 2 year olds. A nearly identical program is under way for steelhead in the Duckabush and South Fork of the Skokomish River.


The program also is raising fish to 4-year-old adults, ready to spawn. While raising fish that long is even more challenging, preliminary results suggest that the overall production may be best of all, since more of the fish survive. Unlike salmon, steelhead can live to spawn year after year.

To make sure that this more “enlightened” method is being tested – as opposed to changes in fishing or environmental conditions – biologists are monitoring the progress of untouched wild populations in other Hood Canal streams – namely the Tahuya, Little Quilcene and Dosewallips rivers as well as Big Beef Creek.

If this program is successful, steelhead stocks boosted with the help of the Lilliwaup Hatchery will eventually become self-sustaining. Those in the Hamma Hamma are now on their own, and researchers are watching carefully to see whether the population heads up or down without further help.

It is widely suspected that overfishing years ago knocked steelhead populations down to low levels, making it difficult for them to recover. Experts say most Hood Canal streams contain adequate habitat for much larger numbers than seen today.

Other aspects of the studies in Hood Canal include monitoring genetic changes over time. It appears that steelhead from the Kitsap side of Hood Canal are genetically distinct from the Olympic side. Although less certain, steelhead from the various Kitsap streams also appear more closely related to each other than the variety of stocks found on the other side of Hood Canal.

“That seems consistent with the physical characteristics of the streams,” Berejikian said, noting that those on the Kitsap Peninsula appear to be more alike than the various rivers coming out of the Olympic Mountains. Rivers themselves seem to select for certain traits, such as the ability to jump, hide or swim rapidly.

Genetic testing will determine if the Hood Canal steelhead program can maintain genetic diversity, he said. Theoretically, the removal of a few eggs from dozens of redds should result in more diversity than taking all the eggs from a few females, as is done in a typical hatchery.

What happens to young steelhead after they leave their streams is a question that has intrigued biologists for years. To get at the answers, researchers have implanted tiny transmitters into a few fish and set up receivers to track their movements.

“We’re finding that about 25 percent of the fish that reach Hood Canal are not making it past the Hood Canal bridge,” Berejikian said. “Half the fish that make it to the bridge don’t make it past Pillar Point (west of Port Angeles in the Strait of Juan de Fuca).”

The fish seem to take about two weeks to swim to the Hood Canal bridge, where it appears a good number are probably eaten by other species, he said. After the Hood Canal bridge, they speed up and travel to Pillar Point in about five days, though it isn’t clear how many fish that don’t arrive are killed and how many just stop along the way.

Berejikian said he is looking for funding to study whether the structure of the Hood Canal bridge causes behavioral changes that make steelhead vulnerable to predation. In any case, if the steelhead program continues on a successful path, the populations should rise, he said.

Berejikian and Endicott stress that the credit for the Hood Canal steelhead program is shared by many groups working on various aspects of the project. They include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, Skokomish Tribe, Point No Point Treaty Council, Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group and Long Live the Kings.