Saturday, May 24, 2008

Regarding Steelhead Broodstock Programs by Bill McMillan

I've corresponded with Bill McMillan over the last few years about various wild fish conservation concerns in this region.
I know of no one more passionate about the fate of wild salmonids as Bill McMillan is.I thought I would share his comments on wild steelhead broodstock programs, a subject that I have touched on more than a few times.

It doesn't much matter where they have occurred geographically, the basics are the same. It is virtually the same hatchery technology that we began with 130 years ago on the West Coast -- take wild fish from their stream of origin (where they are typically needed on the spawning grounds, not removed from them), strip wild females of their eggs, squirt sperm on them from males, rear the eggs in hatchery trays, and rear the juveniles in hatchery confinement prior to release. British Columbia has used native brood steelhead programs for over 30 years beginning with the Big Qualicum Hatchery. Most of the steelhead rivers on the east side of Vancouver Island have virtually collapsed in the past 10-12 years with closures of many of those rivers necessitated to preserve the remaining wild steelhead. I am a personal friend of the now retired hatchery manager who began the Vedder River Hatchery on the lower Fraser system. It had early success, and has seen significant failures in its objectives since. He is now an outspoken pessimist regarding native brood programs for steelhead who recently spoke out against such a program now being suggested by some for the Thompson River.

As with all hatchery programs, the B.C. native brood programs started out as promising ventures that inevitably deteriorated and failed to accomplish the goals intended: that being to maintain wild steelhead runs and to supplement them with additional hatchery fish for harvest. As in the U.S., the B.C. hatchery programs have tended to replicate what has long happened in the U.S. no matter what the hatchery program, wild brood or otherwise: that is replace the wild fish with hatchery origin fish. In the first generation removed from the wild (that is the eggs from wild brood held in hatchery trays and the juveniles juveniles reared in a hatchery for a year), there are significant changes from the wild fish they originated from. In other words, domestication occurs within the very first generation.

Among the most common alterations to salmon or steelhead in native brood programs are phenotypic changes in body form and fin sizes that occur in the very first generation as initially discovered with Atlantic salmon in Norway.
The best information available on using native broodstock is a very complete assessment done by Bill Bakke of the Native Fish Society. You can find that recent paper online by going to I have heard from several B.C. biologists who read the paper as well as from two of the most trustworthy scientists I know in NOAA Fisheries that Bakke's collection of quotes from papers and sources is the best piece of work out there to date.
The only success stories I know of regarding wild steelhead recoveries have been those instances where hatchery programs have never existed, or where hatchery programs have been eliminated. Regarding the former, the John Day River is a great example, although hatchery strays due to all the Columbia River barging are increasingly reducing the John Day's wild reproduction and rearing capacity. Despite these compromises to wild John Day steelhead, it remains the only major river system on the Columbia where wild steelhead are considered healthy. Joseph Creek on the Grande Ronde River is also an exceptional example. Even though Joseph Creek steelhead must go back and forth through 8 dams, they do incredibly well when good dam passage conditions are provided with good ocean conditions. Regarding an example where hatchery steelhead elimination has proven of great benefit, unfortunately we have only one river where it has been attempted, but it has been quite successful to date. That is Wind River. I attempted to get hatchery steelhead eliminated on the Wind back in 1980-81. They were eliminated for 3 years but the 1983 El Nino event sent the local steelhead manager there into a panic and he resumed hatchery plants. As the wild steelhead tumbled toward extinction there in the 1990s with numbers down to snorkel counts of 40 steelhead, the WDFW manager finally eliminated hatchery steelhead releases there above Shepherd Falls, and those that strayed he had removed via the Shepherd Falls trap that is in the fish ladder there. As with many rivers, the wild steelhead began to recover with the better ocean conditions in the early 2000s. However, as the wild steelhead numbers have begun to crash again as the ocean conditions have returned to less productive conditions, the Wind River wild steelhead have continued to recover with growing numbers the past 2 years. For the first time in many years, Wind River will likely be opened to a catch and release wild fishery this summer or fall due to this success.

1 comment:

  1. I am curious what data you are relying on for the assessment of Joseph Creek. I was under the impression that little is known about the Joseph Creek steelhead population. The Nez Perce tribe began studying the population in 2011, but I have not seen any data yet from that. Most other sources simply make assumptions about the population without any data. Have you found a good source for data on Joseph Creek?

    Grant Richie