Category Archives: Conservation

How the Steelhead Gene Bank Program Works (part 3 of 3)

Steelhead Gene Bank by Debbie Kay

Gene Bank Streams in Washington State are the Nisqually and Elwha Rivers. They have been officially named to Washington’s new Steelhead Gene Bank program.  These streams will no longer take any stocked hatchery fish, and measures will be taken to remove hatchery fish and to better preserve the area for wild fish.  These two streams are just the beginning of a program designed to try and help these threatened fish to survive and replenish in the state’s Puget Lowlands.

Steelhead in Washington State

Steelhead are a native, sea-run subspecies of rainbow trout, or Oncorhynchus mykiss.  Steelhead are one of the species known to survive multiple spawns, unlike West Coast salmon.  They have two runs, a summer run and a winter run.  Summer runs are typically in the Puget Sound lowlands, while winter runs are closer to the Pacific Ocean.  The fish emerge from the gravel and rear in freshwater from two to four years, depending on the amount of food and cool water available.  The longer that the fish rear, the higher survival rate they tend to have. Returning steelhead spawn between 8 and 11 pounds, and they can grow to sizes up to 40lbs.

The Concern with Hatchery Steelhead

Rainbows are one of the original hatchery fish, with successful stocking programs dating back to the 1800’s.  This made a switch to steelhead a natural and logical choice. Local steelhead stocking programs are known to take the fish directly from a spawn, trying to preserve the in-stream gene bank. They have been successful in upping raw numbers in streams, but this has not slowed population decline for wild fish.  A 2009 study from Oregon State showed some of the problems with hatchery steelhead.  In the wild, a hatchery fish is not just unconditioned for life in the wild, it is actually genetically less likely to survive.  A fish born in the wild from two hatchery parents has only a 37% chance of survival compared to a wild fish.  A fish with one wild parent has only an 80% chance of survival.  This reduced survival rate was proven to pass on to the next generation, and was assumed to continue for several more generations as well.  For a fish that is struggling already due to habitat concerns, to put breeding fish into the system that are known to reduce the chance of survival for the population as a whole, while taking food resources from those who need it was considered to be contributing to the extinction of wild steelhead strains.

How the Steelhead Gene Bank Program Works

There are three designated areas in the Puget Sound lowlands that are designated for steelhead recovery plans, like the gene bank streams.  Within each, streams will be chosen where hatchery fish will no longer be added.  Fishing will be encouraged for hatchery fish with mandatory take, and release-only for wild fish.  No winter fishing (during the winter run) will be allowed.  The Nisqually and Elwha were chosen for the massive restoration efforts on behalf of both streams, including the dam removal in the Elwha river, and the moratorium on hatchery steelhead in the Nisqually dating back to 1982.  More streams will be given the Steelhead Gene Bank classification moving forward.

See Part One and Part Two

Five Reasons Steelhead Numbers Dwindling (part 2 of 3)

 

Steelhead Numbers Dwindling By Debbie Kay

The sea-run rainbow trout known as the steelhead has a problem.  Steelhead numbers dwindling though declines have slowed their rate, the numbers continue to slip.  There are half a dozen different unique steelhead populations. Steelhead numbers dwindling, and despite the things that are being done to save their cousins the salmon, none of them seem to be working well for these native fish.   Steelhead populations declines have slowed their rate, but numbers continue to slip.  There are half a dozen different unique steelhead populations that are gaining attention for their threatened status, and NOAA is in the process of developing recovery plans for many of these regions.  Though some of the individual regions will have unique reasons for population declines, there are also a number of reasons that all regions have in common.  Here is a look at five top reasons that steelhead are disappearing:

Dams

Many of the most threatened steelhead populations are on waterways with one or more dams.  Fish passage designs are not built into older dams, and only capture a portion of the population in newer dams. Dammed waters often cut off hundreds of miles of breeding grounds for large populations of anadromous fish, and leave thousands to millions of fish trying to get upstream to spawn without success.

Water

Drought years are rough on fish who count on headwater streams for their rearing grounds.  Low water reduces the available area for fish to live, hurts streamside plants which provide food through their leaf litter and reduces available stream insects.  This can cause a drop in the number of fish returning to sea after their time in fresh water.

Climate Change

Increased water temperatures, drought cycles, disappearing snowpack from snow-fed streams and ocean acidification all play a toll on these fish in different ways.  Steelhead need cool water because they require high levels of oxygen to survive, and water loses oxygen as it is heated.  Ocean acidification can prevent the survival of plankton because it can dissolve their shells.  This is the base food for all ocean life, and can cause drastic drops in population up the entire food chain.

Land Use Choices

Shade, clear water without sedimentation and access to leafy vegetation are all needed for steelhead populations to thrive.  However, urban and residential development, timber harvest and agricultural practices that are done too close to streams can take a large toll on the in-stream fish habitat.  Buffers are prescribed for each of the land use types, but many believe that they are currently not sufficient to protect steelhead, particularly with some of the loopholes in the rules that exist.  In addition, there is a lot of unpermitted harvest of streamside vegetation and in-stream modifications with heavy equipment that can cause damage to fish habitat by well-meaning but uninformed landowners.

Genetics

Hatcheries have long been the main solution proposed for steelhead and salmon populations.  While they have made it possible to have a continued recreational (and sometimes commercial) population of salmon and steelhead, the genetics of a hatchery group are significantly less varied than their fully wild counterparts.  In the case of steelhead, the genes of hatchery fish appear to be somewhat compromised, as they show a reduced rate of survival even one generation after being raised in a hatchery.   As this is becoming better understood, hatchery steelhead are being re-thought as a recovery technique, and some stocked steelhead are genetically modified to be triploid or otherwise sterile, to avoid depressing the wild populations.

NOAA’s recovery plans, to be successful, will need to address all of these puzzle pieces in the steelhead numbers dwindling conundrum.  As they continue to move forward with recommendations, the help of land use and fishing groups have become a very important part in helping to bring this popular game fish back to the West Coast streams.

See Part One and Part Three

 

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Hurricane Season can Bring Surprise Fishing

Hurricane Season by Debbie Kay

The changing weather of autumn is the hurricane season. It brings with it a number of different storms.  Hurricanes, tropical storms, monsoons and typhoons are stirred up as the switch from warm to cool (or vice-versa in the Southern Hemisphere) creates inverted weather systems that make the wind blow with severe force.  Everyone knows that during a storm, property and people are at risk.  But what about fish?  It turns out that a storm can create a number of different distribution patterns for fish that the intrepid fisher can use to his or her advantage.  Here are some of the changes that can occur, and how they can benefit you:

Salinity Changes:

Much of the water in a coastal area will change in salinity during a hurricane.  This can work both ways.  Brackish or fresh water may get a surge of salt as winds push tides inland.  Saltier bodies may get a huge influx of rainfall to lower salinity.  Both of these offer opportunities for fish to explore further than they normally would.  Quiet bays that were closed to freshwater fish may find some curious inhabitants found in salt marshes.  Salt marsh and saltwater coastal fish may push upstream with the salinity boost.  This can mean that you’re catching surprise species further afield than normal.  Look for areas sheltered from wind and current where the fish could have sought safe harbor.

Channel Shifts:

The erosion processes of storm surges can carve new channels for streams and can get them to shift back into historical water routes.  This means new fishing opportunities once the turbidity of the water has settled, and it also means an easy target in stranded oxbows left over from the pre-storm stream channel.  This is especially true in areas like the Pacific Northwest, where winter’s flooding rains can shift major streams 20-feet across into completely different riverbeds.

Safe Harbors:

Wetlands and marshes connected to waterways are a great place to find fish after a storm.  They represent quieter water that is typically safe from major change, and therefore a great refuge for fish.  As they don’t represent typical feeding grounds for many of these fish, they will typically be curious to find what’s available to eat in their new digs, and will bite readily.

Hurricane Season Downfalls:

In inland lakes separate from coastal waterways, fish are going to be drawn to places where there are downed trees or other large messes of vegetation.  This is because they offer several benefits.  Protection from predators with the screen of vegetation.  Food in the form of rotting leaves and insects also eating them.  And protection from microcurrents caused by continuing winds.  Take your lake to the areas most affected–  a downed tree in the water is perfect for exploring new fish habitat.

Lateral Floods:

Often, water tops a riverbank during these storms, which allows fish to swim sideways out of their streams.  Some get stuck in puddles, ditches and other places far from their stream when the water dries.  Stream-edge areas of standing water are a great place to find surprise fish after a major flood.

No matter where you find storms, and what they look like in your region, they can be great opportunities to find fish in new areas, as well as high concentrations of hungry fish in sheltered places.  Once the weather has cleared, the hurricane season has some great opportunities to up your fishing game.

UW Professor to 3D Scan every Fish in the World

3D Scan by Debbie Kay

If you’ve ever been curious about the oddball fish you caught, missed or glimpsed, then University of Washington professor Adam Summers has a program that you’ll want to check out.  Summers has purchased 3D imaging equipment that now resides at the University’s Friday Harbor labs in the San Juan Islands of Washington State.  He plans to use the imaging equipment to create a 3D scan of each of 25,000 known fish species on the planet.  And going one step further, he plans to make them publicly available online.

How 3D Scanning Works

A 3D scanner works similarly to a fish finder.  It gauges the distance of different points on your subject from the scanner, like sonar, to create a point cloud.  There are often several scanners in the machine, so that you can get a 360 degree feel for the item.  Passive scanners use available light to image the surface of an object.  Active scanners interact with the object in order to scan it, often through touch or by bouncing a laser off its surface.  This can be combined with different technologies like ultrasound to create an active/passive combo scanner.

A simple scanner will give an outer shape to the item.  However, it can be much more sophisticated .  Some state-of-the-art scanners can see differences between the internal and external structure of a scanned object.  If this technology were applied to fish or other living organisms, you could image the outer flesh, skeleton and sometimes even the organs.

The Uses of the 3D Scan

The informational point cloud that is created by a 3D scan can be used in a few different ways.  It can be uploaded to a 3D printer and used to make a perfect replica for study.  This could allow scientists to make detailed comparisons of similar-looking fish that live thousands of miles apart, or to take a closer look at one fish’s specific anatomy.

These point clouds can also be used with recognition-based software.  This can be helpful on several different levels.  The most basic version can allow you to take a photo of a fish and then allow a phone app to tell you the species.  A more advanced version can be connected to sorting software and create an automated program to sort bycatch from target species.

Though these two examples are already in existence, to some extent, they are far from the limit of opportunity.  Summers has already scanned around 500 species and uploaded them to Open Science Framework.  He will spend the next few years sourcing and scanning specimens of the remaining species.  The true usefulness of the data from this project will be discovered by the next several generations of scientists.

Next Steps

Once the world’s fish species have been catalogued, the next step is to expand the project to cover the world’s 50,000 other vertebrate species.  This will require many more scanners and much more time.  The 3D scan grant applications are already underway.

Traditional Fire Fishing is Taiwan’s Heritage

With Official Status Comes Subsidy to Preserve this Traditional Practice

Fire Fishing by Debbie Kay

In 2015, Taiwan gave heritage recognition to a rare and ancient form of sardine fishing that involves burning a sulfuric fire alongside a boat at night to draw shoals in toward the fishing vessel.  The plea to save this endangered fishing tradition went out in 2013, when the Jinshan Fire Fishing Festival was created to spread awareness about the practice.  The heritage recognition comes with a subsidy to allow them to continue fishing.  With only four boats left, and a fishery that cannot ensure a living anymore, the fire fishermen have begun inviting tourists to view the spectacle of their beautiful, and singular, form of fishing. Continue reading Traditional Fire Fishing is Taiwan’s Heritage