May 12, 2011 - Bend Bulletin - A new supply of steelhead
May 12, 2011
A new supply of steelhead
Species reintroduction: 170,000 steelhead released into Whychus CreekBy Kate Ramsayer • Photos by Ryan Brennecke / The Bulletin
Published: May 12. 2011 4:00AM PST
Hatchery-born steelhead were transported to Whychus Creek this week and released into stretches downstream of Sisters.
The four large plastic bags each teemed with 4,000 tiny steelhead.
And volunteers who had signed up to release those fish had to act quickly — they had to hike along steep game trails to the bottom of Whychus Canyon to get the steelhead into the creek before the fish overheated or ran low on oxygen.
“We've got 45 minutes to get the fish in the water,” said Brad Chalfant, executive director of the Deschutes Land Trust, slipping the bags of fish into backpacks.
Volunteers released a total of about 170,000 steelhead fry into different stretches of Whychus Creek this week — part of an extensive effort to reintroduce steelhead and salmon to the Upper Deschutes and Crooked River basins.
Crews have built a facility at Round Butte Dam to allow the fish to get around the three dams downstream of Lake Billy Chinook. By releasing millions of young fish, the hope is that thousands will return after migrating to the ocean.
But fishery managers have not decided whether to allow the first full run of returning salmon and steelhead upstream in 2012, citing concerns about diseases and low population numbers.
Biologists have two primary issues.
“There's a concern that if there's just a few fish, will they find each other on the spawning grounds,” said Brett Hodgson, Deschutes District fish biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
It could be more beneficial to collect the fish that do return and use them as parents of the next generation of fry to be released, he said.
“This way we would have offspring from fish that we know have successfully reared in these tributaries, made their way to the ocean and came back,” Hodgson said. “These would be superior fish to just the regular stock at Round Butte Hatchery.”
There's also a concern that fish traveling upstream past the dams would bring diseases with them, such as whirling disease, or a strain of another virus that is not present in the upper reaches.
“It's uncertain what transfer of that virus would do to resident fish populations,” Hodgson said. “But obviously there is the potential that it could negatively impact them.”
Biologists with Portland General Electric, which operates the Pelton Round Butte Dam with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, have conducted studies of the disease potential, and so far it seems doubtful that whirling disease would be a problem, Hodgson said. But there isn't conclusive information.
So biologists have decided to gather more information and decide in late fall or winter what to do with returning salmon and steelhead in 2012. They'll take into account the number of migrating fish that go downstream, Hodgson said, and the number of jack salmon that return a year early.
The size of the jack salmon return can help fishery managers estimate how many adult fish will come back to the dam the following year.
“If it looks like we're only going to see a very small number of adults returning in 2012, that will have a bearing on the decision as to what is the best use of those fish,” he said.
But with strong numbers of young chinook and sockeye salmon migrating out of the reservoir last year, and even more sockeye migrating this year, there could be a lot of returning adult salmon in 2012 and 2013, said Don Ratliff, senior aquatic biologist with PGE.
About 50,000 sockeye salmon migrated to the ocean in 2010, and this spring there could be 150,000 sockeye that attempt the trip, he said. The salmon generally return after two years in the ocean, and if only 1 percent of those survive and return it would still mean 500 returning sockeye in 2012, and 1,500 returning in 2013, Ratliff said — plus additional chinook salmon and steelhead.
“Just the numbers, we would have more fish than we could move into the hatchery, than we could do anything with,” he said. “I think the fish themselves might force the decision to pass the fish.”
The steelhead that sloshed down a Whychus Canyon game trail in volunteers' backpacks Tuesday will spend about two years in Whychus Creek before heading downstream to Lake Billy Chinook and, if they're lucky, reaching the fish passage facility.
Chalfant, with the Land Trust, directed volunteers to place the plastic bags in the 44-degree creek water to let the steelhead adjust. Then the “fish liberators” spread out along the waterway, looking for calm waters with good hiding places to release the tiny fry.
“We want to give them a fighting chance before the brown trout and other predators have a chance,” Chalfant said.
Yancy Lind, Deschutes Chapter president of the Association of Northwest Steelheaders and a volunteer with the Land Trust, took a bucket of fish and headed downstream to find an appropriate pool.
“Turn the bucket, let 'em go, hope they survive,” was his strategy, he said.
Waiting to let returning fish go upstream until there's a big enough population that they can find each other and reproduce makes sense, he said. His main concern, he said, is that they have enough good habitat and enough water in the rivers and creeks to return to.
“Personally, myself and all the other anglers are just looking forward to the day where we catch wild fish,” he said.
Kate Ramsayer can be reached at 541-617-7811 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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