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Sports >  Outdoors

Washington loses 250,000 steelhead smolts after equipment failure at hatchery on Snake River

UPDATED: Thu., Feb. 3, 2022

State wildlife managers have lost nearly 250,000 steelhead smolts from a rearing pond at the Lyons Ferry Hatchery on the Snake River, south of Palouse Falls.

The loss, which was discovered Sunday, accounts for about 64% of Lyons Ferry Hatchery’s Wallowa stock summer steelhead set for release in 2022 and 8% of the overall hatchery steelhead production in the Snake River basin, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

A rubber gasket that sealed a screened rotating drum failed, leaving an inch-and-half gap and thus a path to the Snake River, according to Chris Donley, WDFW’s eastern region fishery manager. The gasket was under about 6 feet of water and isn’t easily visible without lowering the water level in the rearing pond. The gasket was last replaced in August, he said. Staff discovered the failure when they began to lower the water level, Sunday. Upon inspection the rubber gasket “crumbled,” he said.

“In this case I don’t believe this was a staff failure,” Donley said during a media call with reporters Thursday. “This was an equipment failure.”

Hatchery staff are looking into using different equipment and checking equipment more often. Whether the incident is investigated further will be up to WDFW officials in Olympia, Donley said. How much the failure will cost the state agency wasn’t immediately available Thursday.

Whether the 249,770 smolts survived isn’t clear either and depends largely on when they escaped, Donley said. It’s possible that if they escaped the holding pen when the water was being lowered on Sunday they may survive, leading to a higher-than-normal number of returning steelhead near Lyons Ferry. Normally, WDFW releases 60,000 steelhead smolts at Lyons Ferry. However, if they escaped earlier in the winter or late fall, many were likely eaten by walleye or other predators.

A smolt is a juvenile salmon or steelhead fish, between 12 and 15 months old. WDFW and other state wildlife agencies rear steelhead and salmon smolts and then transport and release them to various areas in the state. WDFW operates 80 hatcheries across Washington and raises about 5 million steelhead smolts annually.

On Monday and Tuesday, hatchery staff transported the remaining 135,230 smolts from Lyons Ferry to the Cottonwood Acclimation Pond, which is a few miles upstream of the state Highway 129 bridge, south of Boggan’s Oasis on the Grande Ronde River near the Oregon border.

These fish will remain there through the winter and be released into the Grande Ronde River in April. The majority of these smolts will spend one year in the ocean and return to the Columbia basin as adult steelhead in the summer or fall of 2023. Fishery managers estimate that the Cottonwood Acclimation Pond release will be 90,000 smolts short of program goals, according to WDFW. There will be no Wallowa stock steelhead smolt releases at Dayton Acclimation Pond, or on-station at Lyons Ferry this Spring .

“Long term we will be fine,” Donley said, adding “This is really just about one more death by a thousand cuts for recreational steelhead fishing. Poor ocean survival and now we have this loss. I just wanted to make sure people have their expectations set properly for the fall of 2023.”

2021 was a bad year for steelhead returns on the Snake River, prompting officials in Idaho and Washington to limit and in some cases completely close steelhead fishing on the Snake, with some managers calling it the “worst ever.” The dismal returns, of both wild and hatchery-reared fish, are attributed to bad ocean conditions, dams and warm summertime water temperatures, although ocean conditions seem to be improving, giving managers some hope for a rebound.

Still, advocates for dam removal and habitat restoration on the Snake River pointed to the hatchery failure as an example of why wild fish – and the habitat they depend upon – are preferable to hatchery raised fish.

“We want to see natural systems work because they’re more resilient,” said Gregory Fitz, the communications manager for the Wild Steelhead Coalition. “Natural systems function better in the long run. You’re not waiting for parts to fail.”

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