Can hatcheries serve as effective tools to recover steelhead?
Hood Canal steelhead are at the brink of extinction. In response, LLTK has partnered with NOAA Fisheries and nine other entities to test and assess an innovative approach to boost the abundance of these fish: low-impact, time-limited hatchery intervention. The lessons we learn from this study will provide crucial information about the efficacy of hatcheries as conservation tools throughout the Northwest.
Steelhead, Washington’s state fish, have been on the decline in Puget Sound for over a century and are now listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. A hundred years ago, steelhead returns to the Puget Sound region ranged from 325,000 to 800,000 annually. Today, that number has dwindled to roughly 13,000. Fewer than 1,500 of these steelhead return to Hood Canal. Even in its current state, however, the Hood Canal habitat is thought to be sufficient to support much larger steelhead populations.
Current hatchery practices have contributed to the decline of wild steelhead and salmon by weakening the genetic fitness of these populations. Nevertheless, we still look to artificial propagation as one tool for recovering wild populations, especially when abundance is critically low. To address this paradox, Long Live the Kings partnered with NOAA and nine other federal, state, tribal, and non-profit entities to establish the Hood Canal Steelhead Project.
The Hood Canal Steelhead Project is a first-of-its-kind, basin-wide study to assess the effects and effectiveness of hatchery supplementation when using innovative, low-impact wild steelhead rearing techniques. These techniques were pioneered by LLTK and NOAA on the Hamma Hamma River from 1998–2008, a period in which the abundance of steelhead tripled. Today, we are applying these techniques to all major steelhead-bearing rivers in Hood Canal.
In traditional hatchery programs designed to support fisheries, adult steelhead are collected and spawned artificially, and their progeny are raised quickly so they can be released a year later. But in our program, we wait to collect eggs from the redds (nests) of adults until after they spawn in the wild, allowing for natural selection. After the eggs hatch, the juvenile steelhead are reared at their natural growth rates for two years before being released. Some steelhead are also reared and released as 4- to 5-year-old adults so they can make an immediate contribution to the naturally spawning populations. To further reduce risks, hatchery intervention only occurs over two steelhead generations, or eight years.
Nine years into this project, we have doubled the number of steelhead returning. In 2016, we begin working with Tacoma Power and the Skokomish Tribe to expand the use of these techniques into the North Fork of the Skokomish River.
Early on, we learned that steelhead were dying at high rates at the Hood Canal Bridge. Concerned that these losses could undermine millions of dollars invested in steelhead and salmon recovery in Hood Canal, we initiated the Hood Canal Bridge Ecosystem Impact Assessment.
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Joy Lee Waltermire
Senior Fish Biologist