In response to the Council’s July 7, 2014 request, the ISRP reviewed a progress report titled Upper Columbia Kelt Reconditioning Program Update, 2014 ISRP Check-in for the Yakama Nation’s Accord project #2008-458-00, Steelhead Kelt Reconditioning. The progress report is intended to address the Council’s recommendation from January 12, 2010, “Implementation beyond 2014 based on ISRP and Council review of the results report and recommendation of future work.”
The ISRP finds that the progress report Meets Scientific Review (Qualified). The project has achieved a number of milestones over the past four years. A kelt reconditioning facility was designed and built at the Winthrop National Fish Hatchery. Agreements to live-spawn natural origin (NOR) female steelhead at the Winthrop and Methow hatcheries were established. Naturally spawning NOR kelts were collected at three temporary weir sites. Improvements in reconditioning methods were achieved, and some kelts were successfully reconditioned and released. Additionally, reconditioned live-spawned kelts, obtained from the Twisp River trap, will be incorporated into an existing multi-year study that compares the breeding and reproductive success of hatchery origin (HOR), NOR, and NOR reconditioned kelts spawning in nature. The future work elements described in the Update Report, however, do not address some substantial uncertainties. The project has the potential to make important contributions to kelt reconditioning research, currently occurring in the Columbia River Basin, if it can be modified to address the qualifications listed below.
These five qualifications, and other ISRP comments listed below and in our previous reviews, need to be addressed in subsequent proposals and reports.
1) The prior recommendation, by the ISRP, to establish methods to assess how kelt reconditioning may benefit population growth, abundance, spatial structure, and diversity still needs to be addressed.
2) Some modeling and a power analysis need to be conducted to clarify how many juvenile and F1 adults should be sampled to detect meaningful differences in the breeding and reproductive success of HOR, NOR, and reconditioned NOR females.
3) Methods to assess the fat levels, maturation timing, fecundity, egg size, and gamete viability of the project’s reconditioned kelts need to be developed and implemented. The fate of non-maturing or skip-repeat reconditioned fish also should be disclosed.
4) Viable plans are needed to monitor the homing and straying rates of reconditioned kelts released by the project.
5) Experiments are needed to discover the best geographic locations and times of year for release of the project’s reconditioned fish.
Justification for using reconditioned kelts to supplement steelhead populations in the Methow Basin is partially based on the assumption that habitat in the Basin can accommodate these fish in addition to NOR and HOR adults and their offspring. Habitat restoration actions are occurring in the Methow River Basin. Whether the Basin can support additional spawners and juveniles given the large number of HOR spawners present, however, is not considered. Analyses by Zabel and Cooney (2013) indicate that many steelhead populations in the upper Columbia Basin, including the Methow, have recently received relatively large numbers of spawners, leading to reduced productivity of their progeny. A discussion is needed on how changes in VSP parameters will be assessed. Without such a discussion, doubts will continue to exist about how the project will determine if its reconditioned kelts are helping to recover and sustain Methow River steelhead. A report, cited in the Update Report, presents six possible management benefits associated with increasing iteroparity in steelhead populations (see Appendix D; pp 223-224 in Hatch et al. 2012). Some of these proposed benefits might serve as beginning points for a monitoring and evaluation program that could appraise the project’s effects on Methow River steelhead populations.
Ultimately the efficacy of reconditioning and releasing kelts to spawn in nature will depend on the demographic and genetic effects the strategy has on targeted populations, MPGs, and ESUs. At present, it remains to be seen if reconditioning is a viable recovery strategy. The Upper Columbia Kelt Reconditioning Project may be able to provide information on the usefulness of this approach if the Twisp project is successful at producing reliable estimates of the breeding and reproductive success of reconditioned NOR kelts. Additionally, if the project can establish a monitoring and evaluation program that assesses VSP parameters in the Methow Basin, it could serve as an important model for other kelt reconditioning projects. However, it is unclear whether the number of reconditioned kelts surviving and returning to spawn in the Twisp River will be sufficient to conduct a parental analysis and to confirm or refute successful reproduction. Reconditioned kelts will likely represent a small percentage (perhaps < 3%) of females spawning in the Twisp. Thus, some modeling and a power analysis is needed to help clarify how many juvenile and F1 adults should be sampled to detect differences in the breeding and reproductive success of HOR, NOR, and reconditioned NOR females.
Additionally no plans are being made to evaluate the fat levels, maturation timing, fecundity, egg size, and gamete viability of the project’s reconditioned kelts. Assessing and comparing these traits in all three female types (maiden NORs and HORs plus reconditioned NOR kelts) may help the proponents interpret results produced from the Twisp study. Some questions to consider include: did reconditioned kelts possess adequate energy stores to migrate and spawn under natural conditions; were their maturation schedules similar to maiden NOR and HOR steelhead; and if they did successfully spawn, were their eggs viable?
Another important assumption of the project is that reconditioned kelts will return to their natal spawning locations. The PIT tag arrays and weirs in the Methow Basin make it possible for the project to evaluate the homing fidelity of reconditioned kelts, but it is unclear whether this metric will be examined. The proponents indicate that uncertainty also exists around where (geographically) and when (time of year) the project’s reconditioned fish should be released. They do not mention, however, how release locations and timing might be experimentally evaluated.