ORTING (June 1, 2006) – Following the lowest steelhead returns in 50 years, the Muckleshoot and Puyallup tribes are launching a steelhead broodstock program to help save the imperiled stock. With help from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, the tribes are taking a portion of the steelhead that pass through a fish trap on the White River and spawning them in a hatchery environment.

“If steelhead native to this watershed can’t thrive in the wild, the only option is to raise some of them in a hatchery to ensure their survival and make sure their genetic traits aren’t lost,” said Blake Smith, enhancement manager for the Puyallup Tribe. Because certain conditions, such as water temperature, can be controlled, fish show a higher rate of survival in hatcheries than they do in the wild.

Six years ago more than 1,700 steelhead were seen throughout the Puyallup watershed. That number dropped to just over 1,000 in 2001; and then to under 300 last year. “Even the creeks that are considered strongholds for steelhead have seen very few returning adults,” said Russ Ladley, resource protection manager for the tribe. “This isn’t just one or two bad spawning years, this is a sign that Puyallup steelhead may disappear.”

The steelhead in the Puyallup River watershed are part of a larger Puget Sound stock that is currently under review for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The steelhead will raised for a time at the state’s Voights Creek hatchery and then be transported to the Muckleshoot Tribe’s White River hatchery and released. “It is vital that these steelhead acclimate to this particular tributary in the watershed,” said Mike Mahovlich, fisheries biologist with the Muckleshoot Tribe. “Eventually, these fish we’ve taken this year will be the first generation in a wild broodstock program that will preserve the unique genetics of this run.”

“Even though we can keep steelhead on life support in the hatchery, that doesn’t recover them in the wild,” said Smith. “The problem is that no one really knows why steelhead are having trouble throughout the Puget Sound.” Because the treaty and non-treaty steelhead harvest on the Puyallup River has been almost non-existent for the past decade, managers suspect an unknown environmental factor is at hand.

“The steelhead life cycle is so complex, we can’t be sure what part of the steelhead’s habitat isn’t working, whether it’s marine or fresh water,” said Ladley. Unlike other species that travel from the fresh water to the salt water at specific ages and only spawn once, steelhead can spawn multiple times. “Any given spawning steelhead you see in the river might be from three to seven years old,” said Ladley.

Without intervention steelhead might disappear from the watershed. “When a house in burning down, you don’t stand around asking why, you grab a hose and start putting it out,” said Ladley. “Steelhead are disappearing from the Puyallup, we need to do something to save them.”