Jack McNeel
Steelhead fishing is a popular sport and traditionally a valuable food source for Native tribes such as the Nez Perce. A new practice called reconditioning aims to restore their dwindling numbers.

Tribes Recondition Steelhead to Bring Back Endangered Trout

Jack McNeel

The notion of “reconditioning steelhead” might sound outlandish, even a bit ominous, at least when applied to an animal. Reconditioning is what’s done to prepare discarded electronics for resale, and the word carries connotations of recycling. How does one recycle a fish?

It turns out, though, to be the most accurate way to describe a unique practice being implemented in the headwaters of the Columbia Basin, to enable sea-going trout to spawn a second time without returning to the ocean in between. Only Indian tribes are doing this, although with cooperation from a couple of federal agencies. It started with the Yakama Tribe and has expanded to the Warm Springs, Colville and Nez Perce tribes.

Steelhead are a form of trout, essentially huge sea-run rainbows. They hatch in the headwater streams often hundreds of miles inland, then migrate to the ocean, where they grow large and return as adults to spawn in those same streams. These adult fish that have spawned are called kelts. Unlike salmon, they are capable of making that trip to the ocean and back to spawn a second time.

But nowadays that very seldom happens. Slack water reservoirs and numerous dams make that trip difficult, and fewer than two percent of kelts survive to return for the second spawning trip. As a result, steelhead in many waters, including the Clearwater River drainage in Idaho, are classed as threatened, and everything possible is being done to increase their numbers.

That is where the reconditioning comes in. Tribes have found a way to enable kelts to spawn a second time without making that return trip to the ocean. Tribal hatchery workers catch the fish and collect eggs using a method called air spawning, which doesn’t require that the fish be killed. The adult fish are caught primarily at the Dworshak fish ladder on the Clearwater River, said Nez Perce Tribe Kelt Program Coordinator Scott Everett. Then, the eggs are extracted. 

“A needle is injected into the body cavity with very low-pressure compressed air,” Everett said. “It fills the body cavity and gently expels the eggs out the vent.”

The eggs are held at the Dworshak Hatchery and later released as young fish for their journey to the ocean. Fish are collected over a period of months—from fall’s early arrivals, through spring. This range assures the continuation of the same wide range in the future.

Two other locations provide additional adults. Some are taken at Lower Granite Dam downstream on the Snake River, and the other adults come from anglers who catch them in the South Fork of the Clearwater, keep them alive and bring them to the hatchery, where they are air spawned. This variety of sites provides another way to maintain genetic diversity. 

Keeping the fish de-stressed is paramount. 

“We use shade covers and do our best to keep them in the dark,” said Everett, explaining that minimal contact with humans is essential by way of minimizing stress. “We feed them through a flap in the side and try not to interrupt them too much.”

The fish that provided the eggs now become part of the reconditioning process. This is the point at which they would normally attempt to return to the ocean. But if left to fend for themselves, most would die trying. 

The normal run of steelhead into the Clearwater in recent years has been about 3,000 fish. Everett said the past two years have seen numbers quite a bit lower than that. The overall goal is to increase these adult runs into the Snake River system.

Feeding the fish has proven to be one of many tricky points in the delicate process.

“Trying to figure out what we can give those fish to eat has been a bit of a challenge—trying to get them back on food. We’ve had to be a little creative at times,” Everett said. “We’ve had great success with krill. We’ve also found they’re cannibalistic and love steelhead eggs. Once we get them eating again we give them a diet high in lipids. That promotes egg growth as well as just fattening them up. The crux has been making sure they start feeding again.”