Saving Washington’s State Fish from Extinction
By Natasha Dworkin
On a misty, cool Pacific Northwest morning, beneath moss-draped evergreens, our tall rubber boots are trudging through verdant undergrowth toward the remote banks of the Duckabush River. Dressed in waders; packing nets, snorkels, hoses and a machine that looks like a giant shop-vac, we are on a mission. If all goes well, when we return down this path a few hours from now, we’ll be carrying hundreds of tiny seeds of hope for Washington’s imperiled state fish.
We’re on our way to search for wild steelhead redds– the loose, piled gravel nests that steelhead construct in the rivers and streams of our region; where they lay their eggs before returning out to sea. An experienced eye can easily spot a steelhead redd through the rippling water and amidst a gravelly camouflaged background. Fortunately, our team includes two of the best steelhead redd surveyors around. Rick Endicott and Joy Waltermire, employees of Seattle-based non-profit Long Live the Kings (LLTK), have been seeking out steelhead redds in the Duckabush and other nearby Hood Canal rivers for a combined 20+ years.
In partnership with NOAA and seven other agencies, they’ve been working on an expansive, basin-wide and science-based effort to revive struggling steelhead runs in three different rivers that empty into Hood Canal. Their work on the Hood Canal Steelhead Project is aimed at discovering whether or not salmon hatcheries can effectively play a role in helping to sustain wild steelhead populations in rivers where they might otherwise disappear. The Project, begun in 2007, has shown impressive results as well as the potential to dramatically improve the ways that salmon and steelhead are managed in the long-term, in Hood Canal and beyond.
Here’s how it works: Rick and Joy (LLTK’s Lilliwaup Creek Hatchery Manager and Steelhead Biologist, respectively), often accompanied by staff and volunteers from one or more of the other partnering agencies, survey for steelhead redds on three different Hood Canal rivers– the Duckabush, Dewatto, and South Fork Skokomish. Fertilized eggs are removed, or “pumped,” from the steelhead nests and brought into a hatchery environment to be reared until they are large and healthy enough to survive on their own in the wild. At that point, they are returned to their natal streams to be released. They live out the rest of their lives just as they would have had they hatched without any human intervention. To assure changes in steelhead populations are due to their efforts, the team also survey fish in three other rivers with no supplementation to control for natural variation.
This work to help wild steelhead by rearing them in the protected context of a conservation hatchery is a critical backstop, as the populations have been on the decline for decades. One hundred years ago, steelhead returns to the Puget Sound region ranged from 325,000 to 800,000 annually. Today, that number has declined to roughly 13,000. Five distinct populations of Washington steelhead, including Puget Sound/Hood Canal steelhead, are now listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
When the Hood Canal Steelhead Project’s early precedent-setting research began on the Hamma Hamma River, under 20 adult steelhead were returning each year to spawn. After several years of hatchery rearing the young fish to give them better odds of successfully facing the pressures brought about by a changing climate, overfishing, and other environmental factors, more than 100 steelhead now return to the Hamma Hamma annually without our assistance.
“This project demonstrates that great things can happen with a well-developed plan, well-defined goals, and a cooperative effort,” says Joy.
In addition to driving real results in terms of the increased numbers of wild steelhead returning, the Hood Canal Steelhead Project is also helping to answer critical questions about the benefits and risks of conservation hatchery programs and the basic life-history of steelhead. It is providing guidance to federal and state fisheries managers as they design and implement new steelhead hatchery, management and recovery policies. The lessons being learned in Hood Canal are being looked to as a model of a new way to incorporate salmon hatcheries–traditionally utilized to produce the highest number of fish and without much regard for their health or the health of other fish in their watersheds–as a tool for wild fish recovery.
“Long Live the Kings has shown a long-term commitment to finding science-based solutions to the major problems facing northwest salmon and steelhead.” – Nate Mantua, Landscape Ecology Team Leader, NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center
On this day, we take several hundred fertilized (or “eyed”) eggs from two different redds on the Duckabush River. They will be carefully transported to LLTK’s Lilliwaup Creek Hatchery, where they’ll spend their early lives in an environment that closely resembles what they’d have experienced in the wild. They’ll live in low densities and clean spring water, free of pathogens and at an ideal temperature for steelhead; as they grow, they will resemble their wild-reared cousins—in appearance, behavior, and genetic makeup—more closely than they do most traditional hatchery fish.
When they are ready, the young steelhead will be brought back to the Duckabush to be released. Strong, vibrant, and healthy, they’ll make their way into the cold saltwater of Hood Canal, through Puget Sound and the Salish Sea. Some will venture as far north as Alaska before turning around to swim home to the Duckabush, and the entire cycle will begin again.
“I am excited,” Joy says, “about making a different kind of human impact; about nurturing wild steelhead and the waters on which they depend for my sons to enjoy throughout their lifetimes.”