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Sturgeon Lost At Hatchery Accident Finally Brings Attention To Kootenai Tribe’s Hatchery

FOR THE RECORD (September 17, 1997): Fish kill clarification: A Tuesday article about a fish kill at the Kootenai Tribe’s hatchery was unclear about the source of the water to the hatchery at the time of the kill. The hatchery gets its water from the North Water Co., which purchases water from the city of Bonners Ferry. The cause of the kill is believed to be a surge of chlorine during construction on water lines.

It took a disaster for the Kootenai Tribe’s hatchery to get the attention it needs.

The small hatchery which specializes in endangered Kootenai white sturgeon lost 150,000 sturgeon larvae in a recent accident.

Sue Ireland, the tribe’s fisheries program manager, says she believes excessive chlorine from the hatchery’s Bonners Ferry city water source caused the fish kill.

“It was sort of a disaster waiting to happen,” Ireland said. Because of lack of money, “we were using a system that was inappropriate for raising larval fish.”

The fish kill meant the loss of an entire “year class” of sturgeon. That means the Kootenai River will have no fish hatched in 1997 unless wild sturgeon successfully spawned this year.

“For the fish, it’s a huge setback,” Ireland said. “Since the (Libby) dam went in, there are very few wild juveniles out in the system, which means we’re missing an entire generation of fish.”

The July 25 accident occurred during a short period of time when the hatchery was using city water instead of river water. Ireland believes construction on city water lines somehow introduced a surge of heavily chlorinated water into the hatchery, overwhelming its filtration system.

“We looked in our holding tank for the city water,” she said. “There was a big amount of blue sludge on the bottom.”

The setback was the latest in a series of problems that have followed the small hatchery in recent years. Last winter, heavy snows collapsed the roof on a building protecting some sturgeon and trout tanks from the elements.

All of the fish survived, but earlier in the winter, when a pipe froze to a Sandpoint hatchery that was housing some of the tribe’s sturgeon, 19 sturgeon were killed.

In 1992, an equipment failure killed 800 fish in the Kootenai Tribe’s hatchery.

The most recent disaster drew the attention of the Northwest Power Planning Council, which meets today and Wednesday to decide how to spend $127 million in Bonneville Power Administration money designated for fish and wildlife programs.

The Kootenai Hatchery receives about $620,000 each year from the BPA for operating the hatchery. The tribe needs another $200,000 to $500,000 to upgrade the hatchery.

The money would pay for equipment needed to filter and treat river water used for sturgeon incubation and larvae, eliminating the need for city water.

BPA fish biologist Scott Bettin said there’s a good chance they’ll get it.

“We know it’s broke, so now we can fix it,” Bettin said of the hatchery. “It’s just a pole barn. It started out being essentially a garage. With the fish dying this year, it will make the transition quicker.”

The Kootenai Tribe’s hatchery was built in 1991 as an experimental hatchery, not intended for the production of large quantities of fish.

One tribal member calls the dirt-floored facility “our Third World hatchery,” Ireland said.

In 1994, the Kootenai white sturgeon was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Last year, the sturgeon recovery team decided that the short-term recovery plan would rely on hatchery-raised sturgeon.

In the long term, fisheries biologists are counting on changes in the operation of the Libby Dam to help recover wild stocks. Biologists believe that the artificially low flows in the spring have kept the sturgeon from spawning.

In the past, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game hasn’t been supportive of using hatchery fish to aid sturgeon recovery. Agency biologists are concerned about inbreeding and disease.

But that’s changing, said Vaughn Paragamian, a Fish and Game biologist.

“Sue has worked real hard to do this recovery right,” Paragamian said of Ireland. The recent kill was particularly disappointing, he said, because the year class represented five families of fish - which makes for good genetic diversity.

The hatchery hasn’t been without success. In 1992 and 1994, the tribe released more than 300 sturgeon into the Kootenai River. This spring, 1,100 hatchery-raised sturgeon from 1995 were released.

“We have another 1,500 fish that will go into the river this fall,” Ireland said.

As for the loss of the 1997 fish, “this won’t stop the program,” she said. “It’s just too important.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo


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