Friday, March 15, 2013

Guide Welfare

Those of you that either live in Oregon, care about wild steelhead or both need to pay attention to what ODFW is doing here.
Why did I title this post "Guide Welfare"  Please read on.

The picture above was taken on the Wilson river near Tillamook. The angler has a wild winter steelhead in his net and is taking it to a collection tank for sports caught wild steelhead to supply fish for the ODFW wild steelhead broodstock program. Sad thing about this picture is this fisherman and those who wrongly support this program thinks they is doing the resource a big favor by taking that fish to be live spawned for the wild steelhead broodstock program. He probably feels real good about himself....too bad isn't it? He is not doing the resource a favor by adding more hatchery fish to a river at the expense of wild fish. Do you think he cares?
For those of you unfamiliar with the ODFW wild steelhead broodstock programs specifically on the Tillamook area streams let me briefly explain what they are.
The hatchery winter steelhead on rivers like the Nestucca, Siletz and Wilson were for many years entirely reliant on out of basin eggs from the Alsea hatchery down on the central Oregon coast. These fish provided harvest opportunities to anglers and guides during the months of late November through January. These hatchery plants were kept in the lower river and everyone was happy because the later arriving wild fish were mostly left alone because the hatchery steelhead were through the system by the time the wild fish showed up. Now don't get me wrong dear reader I in no way advocate any hatchery fish anywhere that also supports wild fish populations but these Alsea mutants served a purpose and had what seemed to be the least impact on native long as the were kept in the lower river where little wild fish spawning occurs and they provided the public with a harvestable fish for the dinner table.
All the while ODFW (Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife) and a few north coast guides were casting a greedy eye on the later returning but still endangered wild winter steelhead and wondering how to maybe get the harvest later into the year and oh if the guides made a buck or two during their "Wild Steelhead Rodeos" then so much the better. Viola! Enter the wild steelhead broodstock programs!!! These programs would live spawn captured wild steelhead and raise those fertilized eggs in a hatchery environment thus producing a supposedly superior strain of harvestable fish and hey whaddya know they could also provide north coast guides with a later season harvestable run to make some money on. Win/Win right? After all these first generation HATCHERY steelhead were of wild origin and would not hurt wild spawning steelhead. Everything would be just wonderful and everyone could gather in a big circle,hold hands and sing kumbaya because at last everyone's needs would be met! ODFW pledged to keep plants in the lower portions of the Wilson river where these fish would not interfere with wild fish....ah yes angling life would be perfect in Tillamook county at last.
If only life were so simple!
Fast forward to today. The broodstock smolt are not being planted in the lower river despite what ODFW said and ignoring the objections of conservationist landowners along those rivers. The returning broodstock fish are pretty much allowed to spawn wherever they like in whatever portion of the river they like. Some north coast guides on even think it's a great way to supplement the river's wild steelhead because after all these fish are just one generation removed from wild parents. What these broodstock proponents fail to tell the unlearned is that while these broodstock smolt are indeed one generation removed from wild parents they are still reared in a hatchery environment being hand fed by hatchery staff in a total controlled setting and according to fish biologist are still inferior! So what doe s that mean? It means simply this. These are hatchery fish in every sense of the word and are imprinted with behavior traits just like every other hatchery raised fish. You can put a gold ring in a pigs nose but it's still a pig isn't it?
I haven't even touched on the impact these released hatchery smolt have on wild spawned steelhead smolt. ODFW releases these fish when they are six to eight inches in length and since they starve them for the last 48 hours before releasing them into the river. These hatchery smolt are released into the same areas used by wild smolt and they are voraciously hungry. The coastal streams are not nutrient rich such as rivers like the Deschutes so there is a definite competition going on for available nutrients in the river. Since these broodstock fish are bigger who do you think wins? Just cast a fly into these rivers during the coastal cutthroat season and you will understand where I'm coming from on this. We've asked ODFW for a scientific take permit on these hatchery smolt just to see what they are feeding on and have been refused thus far.
I'm not a scientist by any means but I know skunk when I smell it and folks this whole steelhead broodstock program stinks to high heaven. I will admit that years ago this whole scenario made sense me but I decided to dig a little deeper and question why everyone who stood to benefit monetarily from these was so excited about it. I wondered why almost every north coast steelhead guide was fervently in favor of these programs....well at $175 per client it does not take a genius to figure it out.
What is wrong with this scenario? Very simple! The state is taking wild fish that should be left to spawn naturally in the river and making their offsprings hatchery fish. Is this what we want? What has been done is to make wild steelhead a money source for north coast guides at the expense of wild steelhead. They claim to be borrowing the eggs! How in the name of all that is sacred can this wild steelhead egg rip-off be called borrowing? They are stealing the future of wild winter steelhead for the sake of making money!
The state of Oregon is facing a huge deficit in their general fund revenue. Hopefully this wasteful "pork barrel" program will end at the hands of those who understand and care.
Here is a link to a much more comprehensive look at Steelhead Broodstock programs by Bill Bakke of Native Fish Society
Broodstock Programs Are Not A Solution


  1. Shane, Thank you for the details on the steelhead native broodstock program. I certainly agree. Bill Bakke

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  3. It is true that broodstock programs are not a panacea and perhaps even not a solution at all to the question you pose. The question is, are they intended to be?

    First of all, what is the question? If the question is will Oregon's broodstock programs recover wild steelhead stocks in areas that have low, decent or fair productivity for wild steelhead? The answer is no. Are they intened to? Again, the answer is no. Their purpose is to provide a consumptive fishery.

    Also, in limited circumstances brooodstock programs are warranted as a conservation measure. There are runs that are breathing their last desperate breath and/or on complete life support and that is entirely a different question. Consider for a moment the captive sockeye broodstock program on redfish lake in Idaho. The run improved from 4 to over 500 fish this past year. Granted, there were other relevant factors, ocean conditions, spill etc. but do you want to roll the dice with the continued existence of that run?

    I think this post points out accurately that broodstock programs are not normally an answer to recover wild steelhead populations. I think it falls short in that this is not the purpose of these programs and as such they cannot provide an answer to a question they are not intended to address.

    I can only speak to acclimation sites on the Siuslaw--broodstock fish are released into Whitaker Creek and return there with high fidelity. There is a trap where the fish are sorted. Run the right way, I do not believe that broodstock programs present any appreciable risk of extinction of native fish.

    The biggest problem facing coastal steelhead is diminished habitat, (both spawing and rearing), stream temperatures and diminished productivity as a result of streams being nutrient deprived.

    I am not a huge fan of broodstock pograms. I would never "donate" a wild fish to one of these programs. However, I do feel that our most important task is to improve habitat conditions if we want to recover wild fish.

  4. One thing we must remember about steelhead broodstock programs and perhaps the most important thing!
    The eggs are taken from wild fish and made into hathcery fish.
    Those eggs are lost potential for recovery wild fish.
    I think many people forget that!

  5. Shane,

    There is no disputing that! The plan for the Siuslaw states that the action with the least risk of harm for wild fish is to stop planting fish, period.

    In the Siuslaw, ODFW takes 70 native fish annually spawned at a one to one ratio and the remainder of the fish used in the programs are fin-clipped. You are absolutely correct that those are 35 hens that could have spawned in the wild so in that respect (and others) brodstock programs harm wild steelhead populations.

    In the grand scheme of things, I feel that there are far more important causes of steelhead decline in the Siuslaw basin (and all over the state)than the harvest of 70 native fish per year to sustain a meat fishery.

    There are untold numbers of things that kill 70 wild fish per year in that basin, angling probably being among them, predation,etc.

    You are absolutely correct that broodstock programs do not generally provide recovery for wild fish (though in limited circumstances are warranted as an emergency conservation measure, imo)

    Now this is just my somewhat informed opinion but the single biggest factor in steelhead decline is a decline in the quality of habitat. If we had good habitat we could easily take 70 fish per year put of the Siuslaw without a bit of concern.

    Our efforts are best spent advocating for and improving habitat and land management. regimes, imo. The rest will follow.

  6. I cannot disagree with you OMT. Habitat is crucial to any wild fish population!
    ODFW is headed for a budget crunch as is most other state agencies. Unfortunately I believe that habitat restoration projects will take a big hit to save money. The massively expensive broodstock fish are ODFW's sacred cows and will not be cut unfortunately.
    The broodstock programs are simply stated bait guide welfare programs.
    They serve no purpose other than allowing guides to have a hatchery fish to kill later in the winter.
    Hatchery fish are a necessary component for allowing the tag buying public a harvestable steelhead and the Nov-Dec winter steelhead provided that very thing.
    The later running wild fish were pretty much left unmolested.
    ODFW thought they had a better plan and they didn't.

  7. Shane,

    You didn't think I was going to let this die did you? I think we can agree on the habitat issue and that conservation funding is definitely most important and I wish more money was going into habitat as opposed to hatcheries.

    Recently, the biggest lwd project ever undertaken was completed in the Yaquina. As that shows results more money will follow. Huge improvements are being made. Consider the bad old days when lwd was getting pulled out because it was believed an impediment to fish migration. We've come a long way since than but progress is incremental.

    Where we disagree is that the broodstock programs are welfare programs for guides. They may extend guide seasons. But really? I'm not a guide. Yet. Last year I wasn't a guide when I fished the Alsea heavily in February and March--neither was almost anybody else I saw out there. The extended season benefits everybody except arguably the fish though I don't think we will see a decline in wild fish as a result of these programs. A two month winter steelhead season? In Oregon, the beating heart of steelhead country? It wouldn't stand nor square with ODFW's mission statement.

    The cause of decline in one word: HABITAT.

  8. It's pretty simple actually and all one has to do is the math. You take the prospect of tens of thousands of wild eggs out of the gravel and make them hatchery fish then you will see a decline! Couple that with the intermingling of these returning broodstock with wild fish and you will get a weakening of the wild strain.
    Absolutely the habitat issue is huge and most important but when you see unspoiled spawning areas that have not been abused and the runs are still tanking then what is it?
    I think you need to better understand the dynamics of the north coast region. This is absolutely a form of bait guide welfare. When ODFW creates a harvestable fish during a time of season when in the past there were only native fish present and all the bait guides are in love with these programs then yes it is providing a money making opportunity for the few at the expense of wild steelhead.

  9. It is more complicated than that Shane. You can't really take a complicated problem and make it simple.

    I understand the dynamics of this issue as well as you. Broodstock programs are most certainly not guide welfare programs. Guide trips overall make a small percentage of angling trips. That is indisputable. Most fishing trips are a couple of buddies etc. going out to enjoy a day on the water. I know guides who detest the broodstock programs because they used to hammer the Alsea stock throughout the basin season long.

    On the matter of math and simplicity . . . steelhead and salmon runs are complicated not simple due to the many pressures at all stages of their life cycle but to do some math:

    Each hen contains approximately 2000 eggs per kilogram of body mass. Let's assign each hen a 10 lb average value (4.54 kg) and a run of 5000 fish equally male and female so 2500 hens. 2500 x 4.54 = 11,350 kg or 25000 pounds of hen. 11,350 x 2000 = 22,700,000 eggs in the gravel. Now the broodstock take is 35 hens. So 35 x 4.54 = 158. 158 x 2000 = 316,000 eggs not in the gravel. How many eggs does it take to reach escapement and keep the run at 5,000? 22, 7000, 000 / 5000 = 4540 eggs for one adult. The 316,000 eggs assuming one to one escapement result in 70 less fish on the redds or approximately 1.4 percent of the total run. The question is does that impact pose a significant threat to steelhead recovery?

    Granted, maybe the run is less than 5,000 and then the impact is higher as a percentage. However, escapement is also often higher than one to one and sometimes is lower. You could easily see runs build while taking 35 hens out of the run. Would they rebuild as quickly? Maybe. Depends on how many smolts can survive.

    I often fish the Smith River (Or) and it has a strong run of wild steelhead with no stocking. However, the run has not recovered to historic levels and s generally consistent from year to year. Why? Most likely the river is at carrying capacity due to habitat loss as a result of a number of factors--nutrients, downcutting, logging, lwd, water temp, road building, etc.

    Regarding straying, fitness, etc. Broodfish planted in one location are not any more likely to stray than the Alsea uglies were. Also, I'd like to see evidence that spawn time is related to return time. The Alsea uglies (stock 043) are probably just as likely to intermingle. Also, at least according to ODFW broodstock fish are harvested at a higher rate than the (043 stock) I can tell you anecdotally that we hammered the broodstock fish (043W) last year as did other of my friends and none of us caught a single Alsea ugly (043).

    Regarding funding of programs. License sales are down and so is ODFW's take of the general fund. We need people to buy licenses to fund fish restoration. To sell licenses you need people interested in fishing. Who cares the most about fish? Hikers? Mountain Bikers? Birdwatchers? Anglers? Who pays the most into fish restoration?

    I like to fish catch and release but many people just don't see the point. Some even find it cruel and pointless--it s hard to disagree. Even I have some qualms about catch and release angling. Why incidentally kill wild fish for fun? If I do that am I any better than the meat hunters who vociferously support broodstock programs?

    This is just my opinion and my last comment on this matter since it is your blog and you should get the last word. I'll close with a couple things: All of us (or at least most) ODFW, conservation minded anglers, the native fish society, you, me, all want to see wild steelhead recover. We may disagree on the means and the biggest threats but we have the same goal.

    In my opinion, the biggest threat to the continued vitality of our steelhead runs is habitat loss and diminished carrying capacity. More and better habitat would result in higher SAR's which would lead to recovery. The only way to keep recovery moving forward is to make sure the fish are important to people.

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  11. The north coast rivers do not have even close to that amount
    (5000) so anything taken from the few that are left are going to hurt.
    We did several trips on a couple of rivers for the specific purpose of counting redds since a large number of the Wilson and Nestucca wild steelhead are main stem spawners. It was shocking just how few redds we counted!
    I do tend to share your distaste for the Alsea mutants BUT in the past these hatchery fish were Dec/Jan returnees and while they did indeed stray alot, somewhere up to 28% they were pretty much kept in the lower stretch of the rivers and were through the system by February. Their impact on wild fish was minimal.
    ODFW did not keep it's promise to keep the broodstock plants lower in the system and in fact released smolt up river as far as 30 miles.
    Well you get the picture.
    ODFW acted carelessly and without proper safeguards in the north coast programs.You couple that with habitat degradation plus the myriad other things that wild fish face and you see the concern.
    Broodstock programs, at least those on the north coast, benefit the few and not the overall general public.
    After the lack of redds and the overall decline of wild fish the past few years we cannot spare a single egg in my opinion.
    The Alsea mutants, while distasteful to some and not bait guide friendly, served the purpose of providing a De/Jan harvest fishery while having the least impact possible on wild fish.
    I want to thank you for your input on this and always feel free to comment on this blog.

  12. wow great post ,OMT is on the money as far as the habitat loss is concerned ,shane is right about the lose of even one egg is to many !
    Dont tell me brood stock or even regular hatchery steel head dont stray ,ive seen them on tributarys where wild fish should be !they are invaders ,and that is how they should be viewed !!!!!period .
    Man made fish can not replace wild fish .
    The habitat needs to be restored and protected ! the oregon board of forestry is a threat to wild steelhead in the tillamook, and clatsop forest range .We arent seeing the fish ,because the areas they breed in are not being protected and are able to be fished at times when they shouldnt be fished .
    We just suffered a big let down when Obama went with the bush plan for wild salmonids .
    The native fish society needs to start doing habitat restoration projects in the coastal area and fight to protect these areas more ,i know you are on the right track .
    If ODFW got off the butts and helped create wild habitat that was protected by them ,so they could keep their jobs ,we might start to see everyone happy here .the hatcheries need to be left for trout rearing to stock ponds and lakes ,the concrete runways need to be done away with ,and natural breeding areas need to be created to help wild fish grow the way they normally do .dont get me into all the studies they have done about how the runways affect hatchery fish .Boodstock are a mutation away from wild because they are put into runways and become retarted .If the fish hatch in a wild manner and are left to roam the way they would in the wild the fish remain wild .I feel we need to create wild hateries on the river or near them and these areas should be protected from fishermen and people in general .This would also create jobs ,because these areas would need to be built and maintained ,but maybe im just barking up the wrong tree?