In response to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s March 29, 2016 request, the ISRP reviewed a draft Snake River Basin Steelhead Kelt Reconditioning Facility Master Plan. This Master Plan is a component of Project #2007-401-00, Kelt Reconditioning and Reproductive Success Evaluation Research.
As summarized in the Master Plan, “the 2008 Biological Opinion (BiOp) on the Federal Columbia River Power System (FCRPS) and the Columbia Basin fish Accords recognized the potential for kelt reconditioning to contribute to steelhead populations, and the FCRPS BiOp identified actions in the Reasonable and Prudent Alternative (RPA Actions 33 and 42) to fund reconditioning programs in the upper-Columbia River and Snake River (NOAA 2008).”
This Master Plan proposal is to modify the Nez Perce Tribal Hatchery (NPTH) and install six 20-foot and four 15-foot circular tanks to support the long-term reconditioning of up to 750 Snake River Basin steelhead kelts, supporting the annual release of 180 reconditioned kelts – “the equivalent of a 6% increase in B-run adult steelhead escapement relative to the base period considered in the Supplemental Comprehensive Analysis Steelhead Kelt Appendix (Bellerud et al. 2008).”
Kelt reconditioning is pursued through two Fish and Wildlife Projects, the Snake River Basin project, which is the subject of this review, and the Yakama Nation’s upper-Columbia project, Steelhead Kelt Reconditioning (#2008-458-00), which was reviewed by the ISRP (ISRP 2014-9) and received a recommendation from the Council on November 4, 2014. A central scientific issue raised in the upper-Columbia kelt review and other past reviews of these projects concerns the potential contributions of reconditioned kelts to steelhead viability and recovery (also see ISRP 2010-44A [pages 37-38] and 2010-44B [pages 196-198]; ISAB/ISRP 2016-1). As stated in ISRP 2014-9, “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 [Major Population Groups], and ESUs [Evolutionary Significant Units].” The ISAB and ISRP’s 2016 Critical Uncertainties Report summarized the status of the kelt work, “Ongoing efforts in the Basin have demonstrated the ability to recondition kelts in a hatchery setting and for the reconditioned kelts to reproduce in the river. However, the contribution of the reconditioned kelts to population viability has not yet been demonstrated. In some areas, density dependence stemming from relatively high abundances of natural and hatchery spawners may limit the survival of progeny produced by kelts” (ISAB/ISRP 2016-1 Appendix D, pages 150-152).
ISRP Recommendation: Response Requested
The Master Plan is well written and contains an excellent summary of the extensive steelhead reconditioning work that has occurred in the Basin. Moreover, we compliment the proponents for investigating and addressing the many difficulties associated with steelhead reconditioning. Numerous challenges associated with fish culture had to be addressed, including establishing appropriate holding and rearing environments, formulating diets, and developing disease control protocols. The effects of long-term reconditioning on gamete viability, fidelity to natal streams, and ability to reproduce in nature were investigated. Comparisons that evaluated the potential benefits of various kelt treatments that ranged from simple direct transportation past downstream dams to long-term reconditioning lasting from 6 to 20 months were also conducted. In general, the results of these assessments indicated that long-term reconditioning of kelts appears to be a promising approach that might lead to a viable conservation strategy for steelhead.
The proponents acknowledge that the submitted Master Plan does not yet have all the necessary components for a Step 1 review. It currently lacks a Hatchery Genetic Management Plan (HGMP), and work is needed on the program’s Research, Monitoring and Evaluation Plan and Comprehensive Environmental Assessment. Before producing these elements of the Master Plan, the proponents requested that the ISRP determine if the program’s preferred location for a long-term reconditioning facility, for Snake River B-run steelhead, is appropriate.
More information is needed before a decision about the location of the proposed long-term reconditioning facility can be reached. Specifically, information on the following issues is requested in the updated Step 1 Master Plan. Additional comments provided in the ISRP’s full report should also be considered in the revision.
- The biological and ecological rationale for annually increasing B-run steelhead escapement by 180 reconditioned female kelts needs to be explained in the Master Plan.
- Clarification on why male kelts are not included in the proposed reconditioning program is needed.
- The biological escapement goals for B-run steelhead populations in the Snake River subbasin should be in the Master Plan along with a description of what project “success” entails. To what extent, for example, are reconditioned kelts expected to contribute to the rebuilding of natural steelhead populations and eventually to fisheries?
- If available, information on the abundance and status and trends of B-run steelhead populations in the Clearwater and Salmon River subbasins should be provided in the Master Plan. Current spawning levels of B-run steelhead in the Snake River Basin should also be described with reference to numerical objectives for natural spawning steelhead. Additionally, a brief overview of the factors limiting each of these populations should be added to the Plan.
- Substantial hatchery and habitat restoration actions affecting B-run steelhead are occurring in the Snake River subbasin. The Master Plan should briefly describe these programs and indicate how the proponent’s goal of annually releasing 180 reconditioned kelts will be coordinated with ongoing habitat restoration and existing hatchery programs.
- As it is currently designed, the kelt reconditioning program will recondition female B-run steelhead kelts without targeting specific populations. It would seem that capturing, reconditioning, and releasing kelts from populations that have the potential to accommodate additional spawners would be a more efficient and productive way of directing this strategy. The Master Plan should explain why a more focused program was not considered.
- The Master Plan should discuss the infrastructural needs of a more focused and integrated reconditioning program. If the project, for instance, were to narrow its focus on B-run populations that could benefit from the addition of reconditioned kelts, would facilities at Dworshak National Fish Hatchery be adequate to meet these new escapement objectives?
- The Master Plan should compare the benefits and drawbacks of increasing B-run steelhead escapements by modifying harvest regulations, by long-term reconditioning for adult release, and long-term reconditioning for captive breeding and smolt release.
- Some discussion of the genetic risks that may accompany reconditioning (e.g., heritable epigenetic effects and domestication selection) needs to be added to the Master Plan or incorporated into the Plan’s HGMP.
See the ISRP's full report for details.