Project helps boost Skokomish steelhead population

An enhancement project started in 2007 by the Skokomish Tribe has helped double the steelhead population in the Skokomish River. The Skokomish effort is part of a 16-year-long project to boost the number of steelhead in Hood Canal. It also involves a study of the effects of releasing hatchery-reared steelhead in Hood Canal rivers to help boost the wild population.

For the past eight years, tribal staff members have collected 30,000 eggs a year from steelhead nests in the river. Collected between May and June, the eggs are taken to a state fish hatchery. Once the fish grow to be smolts, they are released into the river — except for 400 of them. Those 400 have been raised to 4-year-old adults in a federal hatchery and then released to increase chances of spawning in the river.

The eggs collected are considered to be naturally spawned steelhead, but their adipose fin is clipped so they can be differentiated in the field, said Matt Kowalski, the tribe’s steelhead biologist.

With the egg collection phase of the project complete, fishery biologists will spend the next eight years focusing on monitoring and counting steelhead egg nests and observing changes in spawning areas, life histories and genetic diversity, Kowalski said.

“The increase in the number of egg nests has given us an early indication that the project is working, but the long-term monitoring will be the true test of its success,” Kowalski said in a tribal news release. “We expect numbers to continue to increase over the next four years because there will be active supplementation of steelhead into the river. After the project is over, we expect the egg nest numbers to likely flatten out or decrease, but hopefully remain at elevated levels.”

In the meantime, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is conducting genetic testing to determine changes in diversity and parental lineage throughout the population.

“One of the main goals of the project is to increase the number of steelhead without decreasing genetic and life history diversity,” Kowalski said in the release.

The tribe has focused its efforts on the South Fork of the Skokomish, but that is just one of several major rivers that are part of the Hood Canal project. The Duckabush and Dewatto rivers are also supplemented with steelhead. The Tahuya, Big Beef, Hamma Hamma, Dosewallips and Little Quilcene rivers are not supplemented to provide a comparison.

Puget Sound steelhead are listed as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act. The Hood Canal river fish are part of that protected population.

Partners in the study are Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, Puget Sound Partnership, state Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, Point No Point Treaty Council, Long Live The Kings, Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group, Hood Canal Coordinating Council and Tacoma Power.