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For the week of April 3 - 9 , 2002


Fish and Game begins steelhead experiment

Some hatchery fish fins not clipped

Express Staff Writer

Since 1986, the clipping of adipose fins has defined steelhead and salmon raised in Idaho’s hatcheries, but a new program undertaken by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game is changing that.

Between 10 and 20 percent of Idaho’s hatchery-raised steelhead are being released without clipped adipose fins, and have been since 2000. The unclipped fish are unofficially labeled in Fish and Game spreadsheets as "stubbies."

In the past, Snake River steelhead with an adipose fin were defined as wild fish, which as a threatened species must be released by anglers.

The adipose fin clip now more accurately defines Idaho’s hatchery steelhead harvest program, Fish and Game officials state. Harvest of unclipped hatchery fish — along with wild steelhead — is prohibited, and the unclipped fish are now left in certain streams to spawn naturally rather than returned to hatchery programs.

"The purpose is to return some of the hatchery origin fish to certain locations so that they will spawn in the wild and contribute to the next generation of natural steelhead," said Charlie Petrosky, Fish and Game anadrmous fisheries biologist.

The state’s biologists said it is relatively easy to differentiate between wild steelhead and the newly introduced stubbies. Dorsal fins on hatchery-raised fish erode quickly, and if inspections of dorsal fins leave doubt, scale tests are usually very conclusive, Fish and Game Anadromous Fisheries Coordinator Sharon Kiefer said.

Kiefer said releasing stubbies is an "experiment." It is the result of a settlement between Oregon, Washingon and Idaho and Columbia River Indian tribes. Until an overreaching Columbia River management plan is adopted, annual management plans are adopted to settle the ongoing lawsuit.

The current agreement was reached a few years ago, resulting in reduction of tribal gill net harvest rates in the lower Columbia River and establishing the unclipped hatchery steelhead program.

In 2000, the unclipped steelhead smolts were released primarily in the Little Salmon River and tributaries of the South Fork Clearwater River as part of a continuing experiment to test the ability of hatchery fish to boost natural populations of steelhead, Kiefer said.

Those rivers were chosen because they have a long history of hatchery steelhead influence and therefore pose a low risk of negative impacts to true native steelhead areas.

In 2000, just over 1 million steelhead smolts were released in the Little Salmon River, of which 19 percent were not adipose fin-clipped. Another 3.7 million clipped smolts were released in other reaches of the Salmon River.

There were more than 1.4 million steelhead smolts released into the South Fork of the Clearwater drainage, and 35 percent were not fin-clipped. Another 1.7 million were clipped.

Statewide, 10 percent of the hatchery steelhead smolt release was used for the "natural production experiment."

In 2001, the "experiment" was expanded to include the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River and the Lemhi River. Not more than 20 percent of the state’s hatchery-raised steelhead smolts were released without clipped fins, Kiefer said.

The stubbies are being tracked, and are not counted as wild fish, Kiefer said. So far this year at Lower Granite Dam, about 2 percent of adults have been identified as unclipped hatchery-raised fish.

Kiefer said the arrangement should not confuse dam counts executed by Fish and Game or the National Marine Fisheries Service.

"We’ve got protocols in place so it doesn’t confuse dam counts," she said. "At Lower Granite Dam, my understanding is they feel relatively confident that they can make the distinction based on dorsal fin erosion, backing that up with scale tests."

Anadromous fisheries biologist Petrosky said dam counts are one of Fish and Game’s concerns, but added that the agency is confident it can retrieve accurate information.

The new program does not mean Idaho is backing away from its long-standing commitment to protecting the genetic integrity and population status of its core wild steelhead areas, such as the Middle Fork of the Salmon, South Fork of the Salmon, Lochsa or Selway rivers.

Anglers and outfitters interviewed this week said their primary concerns with the program are avoiding mixing of the wild and stubby steelhead gene pools.

Susanne Connor, a guide for Lost River Outfitters in Ketchum, said there is a perception among anglers that hatchery-raised steelehead are smaller, weaker and genetically inferior to their wild counterparts.

Interbreeding should be avoided, she said.

Les Bingaman, co-owner of Exodus Wilderness Adventures in Riggins, said he doesn’t think he saw any unclipped, hatchery-raised fish this spring, but "I probably would have tossed them back, thinking they were wild," he said.

Another potential complaint, Bingaman said, is that there are now fewer fish for anglers to keep. But most of Bingaman’s customers don’t care about keeping the fish anyway, he said. They just want to catch big fish.

"At (the program’s) foundation, we share a lot of those concerns, and that’s why we’re doing it the way we’re doing it, only placing these fish in areas where we’re already had a lot of hatchery influence," Kiefer said.

Similar programs are ongoing with some of Idaho’s hatchery-raised chinook salmon.

"We have a rather large-scale supplementation and implementation experiment going on," said Kiefer. "As with the steelhead example, none are in the areas where we are managing for wild chinook stocks, like the Middle Fork of the Salmon."


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