Federal authorities are heralding the success of a near-record fall steelhead run in Idaho this year, saying it shows their multimillion-dollar hatchery program is finally netting results.
"Steelhead anglers on the Clearwater, Snake and Salmon rivers in Idaho are saying this year's fall fishery has been outstanding," Ed Crateau, chief of the Lower Snake River Compensation Program, said Monday.Veteran Orofino outfitter Bill White said the hatchery program has been critical in rescuing the Clearwater River steelhead fishery from the brink of disaster in the early 1980s.
"We wouldn't have any fish without it," said White, who has operated on the Clearwater for 38 years. "I'm real tickled to see the results."
Idaho harvest figures are likely to reveal the program's strong success, said Steve Yundt, ocean-going fish coordinator for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
This year's harvest of steelhead is expected to match the previous record of about 40,000 fish set in 1986, Yundt said.
About 132,500 steelhead successfully negotiated eight lower Columbia and Snake river dams and swam upstream into Idaho this fall, the highest number since the 1986 record of 134,300.
"I think we're turning the corner in bringing steelhead back to Idaho," Yundt said.
In 1976, Congress ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to oversee a fish-recovery effort designed to compensate Idaho, Washington and Oregon for salmon and steelhead losses caused by the construction of four dams on the lower Snake River.
Although those dams produce some of the cheapest power in the United States, dam-builders made few, if any, provisions to protect the legendary fish runs.
But 13 years and millions of dollars later, the cooperative program has built 10 state-of-the-art steelhead hatcheries in the three states, including four in Idaho. An elaborate array of egg-taking and fish stocking programs complement the hatchery effort.
"Those hatcheries are the finest anywhere in the nation," Crateau said. "They're absolutely first-class."
In addition to the hatcheries, the recovery effort involves many state and federal agencies, Columbia River system Indian tribes including the Nez Perce and Shoshone-Bannock in Idaho, and federal and private utilities.
Hatcheries raise the fish, trucks dump the tiny juveniles into tributary streams, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers truck and barge nearly 20 million smolts a year around eight dams to the Pacific Ocean. Many others negotiate the dams on their own, provided they avoid getting shredded in turbines.
Agencies and utilities also hammer out a "fish-flush" program in the spring, trading dollars for an artificial flood to push fish downstream through the slack water of reservoirs in the lower Snake and Columbia rivers.
"It's a very complex, cooperative program," Crateau said. "Everyone deserves to share some credit in the success."
Funded by Bonneville Power Administration ratepayers, the program has cost $55 million in construction of hatcheries, and millions more to fund annual budgets, he said.
The BPA estimates it spends about $35 million a year to boost salmon and steelhead runs, but that accounts for less than 5 percent of its annual budget.