Monday, March 3, 2014

Understanding Movements of Steelhead in the Clearwater River Drainage

This is a special guest post by:
Joe DuPont
Clearwater Region Fishery Manager
Idaho Department of Fish and Game

Have you been noticing a truck with a giant antenna in the bed cruising up and down the Clearwater?  Maybe you were fishing and saw a jet boat running the river with the same antenna?  You were probably wondering what that was about.  Idaho Department of Fish and Game, in collaboration with Nez Perce Tribal Fisheries Research Division, has been tracking steelhead bound for the South Fork Clearwater River since September with the primary objective of trying to better understand how steelhead move and use the river system and what causes them to move.  It will be especially be important for us to learn how wild steelhead move through the river differently than the hatchery fish we are targeting in our fisheries.
We have been capturing South Fork Clearwater River bound steelhead since September at a trap in the fish ladder of Lower Granite Dam.  This trap has a system that reads PIT tags (microchips implanted in fish to track their movement throughout the Columbia) and was programed to capture any fish that were previously tagged as juveniles in the South Fork Clearwater River.  Once one of these fish is captured, our staff inserts a radio tag down its throat so it rests in their stomach (these fish generally aren’t eating after they leave salt water).  You can tell when you catch one of these fish because it will have an antenna (basically a wire) sticking out of its mouth.  Each radio tag has a specific code, which we can read using our receiver.  That means we can track the movements of individual fish and compare and contrast those movements to other fish.

We are in the midst of what is just our first field season, but we have already started to notice some interesting patterns.  First, the reservoir and slack water near the confluence seem to be an important habitat for some groups of fish that are spending most of the winter holed up and waiting for spawning season.  On the other hand, a smaller group of fish moved very rapidly, making the trip from Lower Granite Dam to waters upstream of Orofino in a matter four or five days.  Of course, many of the fish have been slowly working their way up river, and some have found their way into your creels.  Do some hatchery release groups move at different times?  Do they move together?  When do most of the wild steelhead make big upstream movements?  These are the questions we hope to address with this study.  Understanding the cues that cause some fish to move and others to stay in the reservoir will help us better manage our fisheries.
The figure below depicts how far four of our radio tagged steelhead had moved up from the confluence of the Clearwater with the Snake River (distance on the vertical axis) by a certain time (date on the horizontal axis).  These are four interesting fish that show some of the breadth for information we can obtain using radio telemetry.  For example, the fish with Code 18 was one of our fastest migrating fish, but then it was harvested near Greer in November.  Alternatively, the fish with Code 11 stayed in the confluence for weeks before migrating, but now it is sitting below Dworshak Dam on the North Fork, even though it should be heading for the South Fork!  Our biggest challenge will be to find the overarching patterns in this information that help us be better fishery managers.
Why do we need to know how steelhead move through the system to better manage steelhead fisheries?  Take the 2013-2014 steelhead run as an example.  Based on the poor returns of b-run hatchery steelhead over Lower Granite Dam and into the Clearwater River, IDFG instituted a one fish bag limit, with no harvest on fish over 28 inches in the Clearwater River below Orofino Bridge and in the North Fork.  This management action was taken in order to ensure that enough large steelhead returned to the hatchery to comprise the broodstock for the next generation.  In the future, understanding movement patterns in the Clearwater may give us more options and more flexibility to structure fisheries in other ways, which may be less restrictive.  It may give us opportunities to structure fisheries to protect wild fish in years where those runs are lean and hatchery fish in years where we might not get enough broodstock.  In short, we are collecting these data so that we can learn how to best balance good fishing with good stewardship of our limited steelhead resources.
So the next time you are on the river and see us tracking fish, you will know what we are up to.  We are more than happy to answer questions about this program if we happen to bump into you at one of the ramps or pullouts up and down the river.  Best of luck with spring steelheading!

Text and Photos By:
Joe DuPont
Clearwater Region Fishery Manager
Idaho Department of Fish and Game

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Upcoming Chinook Salmon Seasons and Public Meetings for the Clearwater Region

By Joe DuPont, Clearwater Region Fishery Manager, IDF&G
There certainly has been a lot of discussion lately about what this year’s spring Chinook Salmon runs may be like.  So, I have provided the table below that shows the preseason forecast for runs returning to the Clearwater Region.  

This forecasts was developed using last year’s Jack returns, and I emphasize that this is only a forecast.  Some years our forecasts are way off, and some years they are fairly close.  If you are wondering how this forecast compares to previous years returns, refer to the two graphs below that show the number of adults (2 and 3-ocean fish) that made it past Lower Granite Dam over time.

You will see that for the Clearwater River basin we are forecasting a run (forecast in shown by the yellow circle) similar to what we have seen from 2008 to 2012 where we had 7-day a week fisheries and seasons that lasted into June if not later.  The forecasted return for the Rapid River run fish is more than double last year’s return but not as high as we experienced in 2010 and 2011.  In the past, runs of this size resulted in 7-day a week fisheries that lasted into June.  Chinook Salmon rules will be set on March 19-20 by the Commission, and rule proposals for the Commission will be developed with input from  the public.

Now that I have your attention, I wanted to let you all know the dates and locations for when we will be having our public meetings this year where we will discuss the this year’s spring Chinook Salmon run for the Clearwater Region and how to best structure our fishery around it.  During these public meetings, we will also present some of the new things we are learning in the Clearwater River Basin and what we are doing to improve salmon runs there.  We will also give you an update on access issues on the Little Salmon River and what we are doing about it.  Finally, we will discuss last year’s Chinook Salmon season, what we did about it and what we could do differently in the future.  These public meetings will occur as follows:

February 25, 2014   6:00 PM (Mountain Time)     Riggins                 Salmon Rapids Lodge
February 26, 2014   6:00 PM (Pacific Time)            Lewiston             IDFG Regional Office
February 27, 2014   6:00 PM (Pacific Time)            Orofino                Clearwater Hatchery

I hope to see you at one of these meetings.  For those of you who can’t make it, we will provide you opportunities to comment via e-mail.  Stay tuned for these e-mails.

Finally, I wanted to share the article below with all of you that Eric Barker wrote last week for the Lewiston Tribune.  The IDFG regularly provides comments to Washington and Oregon on concerns we have with how they manage their Chinook fisheries.  This article does a good of showing how difficult it can be at times for changes to occur.  Idaho will continue to work with these States on ways to manage their fisheries so it will better meet the needs of all.

Idaho's chinook plea denied by neighbor states

Oregon, Washington allow for spring fishing season to carry on as usual
Posted: Friday, January 31, 2014 12:00 am

By ERIC BARKER of the Tribune

Idaho was rebuffed after asking its neighbors to the west to delay fishing for spring chinook in the lower Columbia River so more of them can reach the Salmon and Clearwater rivers.

Ed Schriever, chief of fisheries for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, addressed senior fisheries managers from Oregon and Washington at a meeting Wednesday in Vancouver, Wash., in which the two states set fishing regulations for the Columbia.

Idaho has long held that lower Columbia River fishing seasons in March and April disproportionately harvest fish bound for hatcheries on Idaho's Rapid and Clearwater rivers. Those fish are among the first spring chinook to enter the Columbia each year, and Schriever said anglers there catch many more of them than they do of other stocks of spring chinook.

For example, he said, juvenile chinook released from Rapid River account for about 11 percent of the adult hatchery chinook that return to the Columbia each year. But they make up 30 percent of the harvest in the lower Columbia. Conversely, he said, there are other hatcheries that account for 40 to 50 percent of the smolts released in the basin but make up less than 10 percent of the adult harvest in the Columbia.

He also noted that harvest in the Columbia can curtail fishing opportunity and harvest in Idaho. Between 2008 and 2012 he said 40,000 Rapid River-bound fish were harvested in the lower Columbia, but Idaho sport anglers harvested just 26,000 fish during the same period.

"Our request of Oregon and Washington is to get a framework in place that more evenly distributes their catch target across all the stocks and not disproportionately on the earliest arriving," he said.

Specifically, Idaho would like the two states to hold off on allowing fishing above the Interstate 5 Bridge until May. But that would not be a popular move. Anglers, guides and retailers in the lower Columbia are zealous about starting to fish in March, when low and clear water is most conducive to catching spring chinook.

Tony Nigro of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and Guy Norman of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife listened to Shriever's explanation of Idaho's concerns. But they were not compelled to make adjustments. Instead, they approved a lower Columbia fishing season that will open in March that is designed to harvest the two states' share of fish by April 7.

Norman and Nigro also noted the two states have adopted a 30 percent buffer to guard against overharvest. Fisheries in the lower Columbia are designed based on preseason run-size predictions. Those predictions are often wrong. In the past, when the forecasts have been more robust than the actual returns, the two states have harvested more fish than they otherwise would have been allowed.

Based on protests from Idaho and tribes that fish on the Columbia River, Oregon and Washington now set their harvest rates 30 percent lower than the run forecast would otherwise call for.

Norman said the 30 percent buffer helps distribute the lower Columbia catch over a longer time frame.

"I don't want that buffer to be taken for granted," Nigro said.

Schriever said he appreciated the Oregon and Washington listening to him, but he didn't buy their argument and said even with a buffer they are targeting the early returning fish bound for Rapid River and the Clearwater.

"How does that not continue to target the front end of the run?" he said. "So I asked for their consideration and they gave me none."

Allen Thomas of the Vancouver Columbian contributed to the reporting of this story.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Removing a Local Landscape Icon

The New Year is bringing big changes to the landscape at Dworshak Fish Hatchery. Our hatchery access bridge is currently being removed, piece by piece and will be replaced by an at-grade crossing. 

The bridge was built in 1968 and crosses over railroad tracks that run between the hatchery and Hwy 7. In 2011, the weight capacity for the bridge was downgraded from 88,000 pounds to 76,000 pounds. 

Because of the weight restriction we could no longer carry a fully loaded fish truck over the bridge. In order to truck our steelhead smolts we had to reduce the load by 1/3, de-water the truck to cross the bridge, and re-water the truck after crossing the bridge. This tripled the number of outplanting trips and extended our release time by about 10 days. The de-watering and re-watering processes also put the fish under additional stress. 

We were also no longer able to accept feed deliveries onto the Hatchery. Feed trucks had to off load in our visitor lot and hatchery staff would then bring pallets of feed over the bridge with our boom truck and forklifts. 

The Army Corps of Engineers opted to put in an at-grade crossing rather than rebuild the bridge. The cost of installation and maintenance of the crossing will be far less than retrofitting and maintaining the old bridge.

Bridge demolition should be complete by January 18 and we will get back to business as usual.

Text and Photos by Angela Feldmann
Video by Adam Izbicki