Nez Perce Tribal biologists using new method to combat declining steelhead

OROFINO, ID - The steelhead population is of concern to many in the region, including local tribal biologists.

Once a year, biologists, scientists and crew members of the Nez Perce Tribe come to the Dworshak National Fish Hatchery to bring life back into the river.

"The B-run steelhead here and other steelhead in Idaho are endangered," said Pierce. "They're listed under the Endangered Species Act. We can take advantage of the fact that these fish can survive to supplement the population."

Fishery Scientist Andrew Pierce of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission has assisted the tribe to create a new program that's changing the way the hatchery helps steelhead reproduce.

"The fishe have normally been kill spawned here, that is they've been normally kill spawned to harvest the eggs," said Pierce. "We're getting a project underway in which we're trying to get Snake River B-run steelhead to survive and recondition."

What used to be a bloody and rather traumatizing process is a now minimally invasive thanks to an air spawning technique the scientists and biologists of the tribe are now using.

"Right now we're artificially spawning steelhead at Dworshak hatchery," said Pierce. "The fish are lifted up in the baskets sorted on the table and then females that are ripe are non-lethally spawned using an air spawning technique."

By pushing air into the female, they're able to expel the eggs without harming her. After the eggs are fertilized they'll be reared and stored in these cubbies. And once they're at an age like these little guys, they'll be released into the wild. As for the kelt, or adult steelhead that successfully spawned, they'll be reconditioned back to full strength.

It's the hope Snake River Basin Adjudication Coordinator Kent Hills of the Nez Perce Tribe that once they're released back into the ocean they'll come back to the Lower Granite Dam.

"Right now with all the dams we don't get much adults returning for a second and third time with steelhead," said Hills.

With the air spawning method, they're able to collect more than 6000 eggs per female to eventually be released into the Clearwater and Snake Rivers.

Successfully reconditioned steelhead that were spawned today will be released back into the Clearwater River next Spring.