Major successes in Steelhead Broodstock Program at Lower Elwha

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PORT ANGELES, Wash – The setup looks complicated. Two tables covered with data sheets, laptops, glass slides, a digital scale and instruments for taking blood samples are set up next to the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s hatchery ponds. Steelhead are being pulled from the ponds and weighed, measured, sampled and spawned. Each of nearly a dozen people have a specific job in this organized chaos to help spawn nearly 150 four-year-old steelhead.

These steelhead aren’t hatchery fish though – they are part of the tribe’s captive steelhead broodstock program. The tribe started the program in 2005 to ensure that the remaining Elwha River steelhead aren’t wiped out during the 2011 deconstruction of the Elwha River’s two dams, 210-foot Glines Canyon and 108-foot Elwha.

Puget Sound steelhead are listed as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act. Currently, fish cannot get past the dams and can spawn only in the lower five miles of the river.

Every summer since 2005, the tribe has collected steelhead fry from the river and raised them in its hatchery. The fry collected are believed to be remnants of the river’s naturally spawning stock. Fry collected in 2005 are now 4 year olds and were spawned this spring; their progeny are expected to be released as 2 year olds in 2011. They’ll do the same for each successive year.

“We’ve found that wild steelhead tend to emigrate to the ocean as 2 year olds, so we’ll try to rear them to that age before we release them,” said Larry Ward, a fisheries biologist and hatchery manager for the tribe. “We’ve been successful at raising the 2005 stock to spawning maturity, so things are going well so far.”

The tribe collected blood and scale samples, as well as kept track of the genetic makeup of each fish. Two or three males were spawned for every female and the fertilized eggs are incubating in the tribe’s hatchery. More than 250,000 eggs were taken and fertilized from the 2005 fish this spring.

Collaborators on the project include National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and U.S. Fish & Wildlife. Funding for the project comes from the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund.