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Nez Perce tribe hopes to spark return of chinook with artificial beds

ELK CITY, Idaho – The Nez Perce tribe is taking advantage of overproduction at the Clearwater Hatchery to seed some local streams with spring chinook redds – spawning beds or nests.

Members of the tribe’s fisheries division have been busy placing 850,000 fertilized eggs into artificial nests in the beds of Newsome and Lolo creeks, where they have also done extensive restoration work. The process involves using special equipment to recreate the nests that female salmon laboriously create with their bodies and then injecting the eggs into the gravely cavities.

It’s not the most efficient way to boost salmon runs, but tribal fisheries officials say it’s better than having the excess eggs go to waste.

“Having us go and place these eggs into a river bed and make an artificial redd I think is certainly a poor substitute for what fish do for themselves,” said Joseph Oatman, deputy director of the fisheries division. “We certainly think it’s a better alternative than not putting these fish to use.”

Following spawning, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s Clearwater Hatchery at Ahsahka ended up with more eggs than could be stored there. State officials asked the tribe if they had space for the eggs or could make use of them.

Fishing for spring chinook was cut short by both the state and tribe in June when the run faltered and hatchery officials feared they might not get enough adult fish back to meet their production goals. Oatman said it appears the overproduction resulted either from female salmon producing a higher number of eggs than normal or a higher survival of the eggs during the spawning process.

The tribe didn’t want to see the eggs end up in a landfill, so they scrambled to outplant them over the past two weeks.

“Hopefully they hatch, and hopefully they survive to provide for some number of adult returns three to four years out,” Oatman said.

The tribe has worked to improve spawning and rearing habitat in several streams in the South Fork of the Clearwater River basin and other tributaries to the Snake River. That work has included things like restoring flood plains, replacing undersized road culverts to improve fish passage, planting native vegetation along streams, creating deep pools in the stream and obliterating old logging roads that contribute to erosion.

“We look at the entire watershed because everything drains down to the river so it all matters,” said Emmit Taylor Jr., director of the tribe’s Watershed Division.

“The strategy has been very successful in preventing some of these fish populations from going extinct and maintaining some level of abundance of fish out there in the water that also provides for some level of fishing opportunity,” Oatman said.