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.