USK, Wash. – For decades, trout breeding in Washington was skewed to bolster recreational fishing. But the results of that effort have led to a genetic soup of fish genes that threatens the survival of pure native trout.
Northeast of Usk, a new $27 million fish hatchery might offer a simple albeit costly piece of the solution for one native trout: the westslope cutthroat.
“This is the hatchery everyone wanted,” said Harry Rich, Seattle City Light fish biologist and one of the project managers. “This is a conservation hatchery, not like others for recreation.”
The experimental hatchery is funded by City Light as part of the Seattle-based utility’s Boundary Hydroelectric Project federal relicensing requirements. The handful of buildings and control structures will be enclosed soon before the winter snows hit and then work will be completed inside. The plan is to test next year and begin breeding and rearing trout by 2024.
Rich said this facility is specially designed to take the genetically pure fish from a stream, spawn them and after a time in the hatchery, plant them back in the same stream.
The first trout from streams in the area will be westslope cutthroat trout. Eventually they will raise a second species, possibly native bulltrout for reintroduction in the area streams they came from, Rich said.
“We can give each fish the conditions that they like, including water temperature, oxygen and food,” Rich said.
And most important is what fish biologists call “bio security,” or making sure one species of fish doesn’t accidentally breed with another, which has been a problem in hatcheries.
In this hatchery, it is even more important because biologists don’t even want native cutthroats from one stream breading with those from another.
“Naturalized rearing elements” is another term for the purpose of the facility rising from the forest floor.
“The trout will experience real-life conditions,” Rich said. “Recreational hatcheries are not as interested in that.”
Trucks carrying building materials and workers have created a steady stream down the gravel hatchery road to the clearing in the forest next to Skookum Creek. About 30 workers and heavy equipment swarmed over the area where a half dozen steel-framed and cement structures neared completion, racing to enclose them before winter.
Heavy equipment was diverting Skookum Creek water to a pipe that connects to a control vault, where it is mixed with spring water from a containment area. The warmer spring water will mix with the frigid creek water to make the ideal temperature for the trout.
The mixed water runs through a purifier down the hill before entering the hatchery tanks, to eliminate contamination that could cause disease.
There are two steel-framed buildings that will house 50 fiberglass tanks each, with electronic monitoring and control equipment attached.
Three full-time employees will operate the plant with part-time workers when needed.
“We will do about anything so fish get what they need,” Rich said.
The largest two-story building is for breeding and will be kept at about 50 degrees with clear panels along the upper walls for natural light.
After spawning in the adjacent building with another 50 tanks, the fry will get live natural food supplements such as insects and worms.
Biologists have found that all these added procedures will increase fish survival once released in native streams.
Waste water from the hatchery runs through a treatment system before it is returned to Skookum Creek.
To maintain the security and health of the trout, the hatchery won’t be open for public tours.
Historic fish raising
The state will continue to use a hatchery at Kings Lake for recreational fish rearing. It was rehabilitated with rotenone in the fall of 1940 – the first such effort in Washington state, according to a 2011 report written by Bill Baker, biologist with state fish and wildlife.
In 1941, cutthroat captured from tributaries to Priest Lake were spawned, and offspring were reared at the old hatchery. These fish were then stocked into nearby Kings Lake in spring 1941. This was the origin of Kings Lake stock westslope cutthroat.
The first egg-take from Kings Lake occurred in spring 1943, resulting in a collection of 1.3 million eggs.
In the early 2000s, Kings Lake stock cutthroat were accidentally mixed with rainbow trout in the hatchery, and these fish were subsequently stocked into Kings Lake. Despite maintaining adult traps on two main tributaries of Kings Lake, both cutthroat and rainbow trout have been successful at reproducing naturally in the system.
Due to overlap in spawn-timing and a lack of reproductive isolating mechanisms between the two species, the pure westslope cutthroat population was corrupted, according to Baker’s report.
Giant glaciers and floods carved pockets for isolated streams and the fish that developed in them were often cut off from others. The number of distinct populations of cutthroat present at the time of the arrival of European settlers will probably never be known as many of these populations have been destroyed through hybridization with introduced strains of domestic rainbow and cutthroat trout.
Prior to 1903, cutthroat trout were stocked by the U. S. Bureau of Fisheries in numerous Washington streams as early as 1895. Many of the fish planted were the Yellowstone “black spotted” trout.
The presence of the native cutthroat is considered an indicator of watershed health, and with their historic numbers down 90% in the West, they were about to jump on the endangered species list a few years ago.
This striking fish with silver-green sides, dark spots and namesake red slashes under their chins need pristine conditions – gravelly stream bottoms, cold water and shaded creeks with deep pools and pockets.
Westslope cutthroat are often outcompeted by nonnative fish, especially brown, brook and rainbow trout. They also grow more slowly, eat less aggressively and tend to be easier for anglers to catch.
Biologists excitedBiologists discovered that the cutthroat in Sullivan Creek were genetically pure after the project began. It means the cutthroat’s ancestors went back before the pioneer days unlike most of the fish in the drainage with some genetic link to hatchery fish.
“Fishery biologists are super excited about this,” said Lloyd Dixon, City Light project manager. “It’s important because it means they are super-resilient to things like climate change.”
Fish that have been around for 1,000 years develop ways to survive change, he said. Because Sullivan Creek has remained relatively isolated and its native cutthroats are reproducing naturally, City Light doesn’t plan to remove any and breed in the hatchery. They will continue to eradicate nonnative fish such as eastern brook trout.
People may be disappointed with the brook trout suppression program because they enjoy fishing for the abundant trout, but biologists said it’s necessary for the survival of the native fish.
They point out that the federal government considered listing native cutthroat trout under the Endangered Species Act, which they say could have caused tremendous new restrictions on all activities in the area.
The hatchery is part of a recovery project for hundreds of miles of waterways in the Pend Oreille River watershed.
A dam was removed in northern Pend Oreille County. Giant trees were lifted into Sullivan Creek with helicopters and carefully stacked to recreate natural habitats resembling those that existed 100 years ago.
Erosion is being controlled on forest roads, nonnative fish are being culled, fish ladders over dams are being opened, and a cold-water pipe flows from Sullivan Lake.
Dean Osterman, Kalispel Natural Resources Department director, said the goal is to establish a large enough population of native westslope cutthroat trout to keep them off the Federal Endangered Species Act list and to reestablish bull trout at levels where they are removed from the list.
Both fish species are indicators of environmental health of the watershed since the fish require pristine conditions to survive.
There are 16 nonnative and 10 native fish species in the region now. Bass, northern pike, lake trout, eastern brook trout and kokanee are among the nonnative. Bass were introduced by the train-car load in the late 1800s, and the Kalispel Tribe even operated a bass hatchery.
Researchers believe that 64% of the fish in the Pend Oreille watershed are nonnative species. They report that most streams had native westslope cutthroat trout 100 years ago but they had declined to 35% before recovery work began. Most native fish were found above impassable restrictions such as waterfalls and culverts protected from nonnative species.
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