Reduce, reuse, re ... steelhead?

A lunker case of deja vu

  • Steelhead at eagle Creek, Oregon.

    Courtesy Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife
 

Except for its aluminum shine, a steelhead is nothing like a soda can. Tail to snout, it's the length of some four or five cans, or about two feet long, with dark freckles and a rose blush down its muscular flanks. And when one of these mega-rainbow trout washes onto a cobbled Northwestern bank on its return journey from the ocean to spawn in its natal stream, it swiftly decomposes, stinks, and delights scavengers like bald eagles, microbes and willow rootlets. It doesn't sit lonely, crumpled, for decades.

Yet every winter, thousands of steelhead — each a rod-shuddering five, or 12, or even 20 pounds — migrate hundreds of miles upstream to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife hatcheries, where they're placed into a watery recycling bin of sorts and picked through like so many bottles and cans. At the Nehalem River Hatchery about an hour and a half southwest of Portland, almost 2,500 artificially bred steelhead made the trip this winter. But just 60-70 pairs are set aside to parent the 90,000 smolts that will become the future run. The rest are eligible for "recycling,"  and once a week, on the curb of the river, employees sort the bin.

They sweep large screens through a hatchery holding pond, corralling these epic creatures. "Ripe!" or "Green!" the workers call out, lifting each fish by hand to determine if it's ready to spawn. With the squeeze of a thumb, "ripe" females ("hens") are relieved of their coral-orange roe, which is squirted into a bucket. Then they're released upstream to begin their out-migration to the Pacific, or, ideally, to the hook of an angler. Mature hatchery males ("bucks"), however, are simply carted off to nearby lakes, to live out their lives as bachelors — like empty cans swirling in an eddy.

The wildlife department truck pulls up when there are enough still-immature, "green" steelhead on hand to recycle. First, each fish is tagged — or simply hole-punched through the cheek — for the sake of recordkeeping. Then, 50 or 60 are dropped into a thousand-gallon aerated aquarium on the flatbed, and schlepped 10 miles downstream to the Aldervale Boat Launch. The tanker truck backs into the water. The stopper's pulled, and the steelhead pour into a stretch of river they've already swum. They mill about confusedly, then dart away. It's a six-mile swim back to the hatchery. During that one-day to two-week journey, Oregon anglers get a second cast at them.

As is the case with most artificially raised fish, the Nehalem Hatchery steelhead exist solely to be caught. But anglers don't always — or even very often –– succeed. Kirk Schroeder, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist, estimates that fishermen brush up against just a quarter of any given river's steelhead. Far fewer, of course, are reeled in. (Steelhead have been described as "the fish of a thousand casts.") Still, many of the fish that anglers do land were recycled; luring both tourists and locals, they have a real redemption value for the Oregon economy. "We're doing everything we can to get (fishermen) another opportunity," says Eric Hammond, a Nehalem Hatchery employee. This year, he helped recycle 660 steelhead downriver; the hardiest among them were recycled, and counted, multiple times.

Sexually mature steelhead aren't recyclable because the wildlife department doesn't want hatchery fish spawning in the river, especially with their wild cousins. In an ideal scenario, all artificially raised steelhead would be removed from the river system each year, by hook or hatchery trap. Hatchery fish are genetically inferior, perhaps slightly inbred. They're designed to run earlier to avoid collision with native winter steelhead, and cradled in concrete ponds that are cushy, compared to a river.

Some worry that recycling steelhead might dilute the genes of native strains; that letting "green" fish linger — and possibly mature and mate — outside of the hatchery is a risky practice. One study Schroeder took part in reported that on the Siuslaw River, on Oregon's central coast, only one in 10 recycled steelhead were ultimately caught; over the course of three years, fewer than half of those recycled fish turned up again at all. No one knows where they went, but Schroeder says that the tributaries in which wild fish spawn certainly aren't "swamped" with strays. As with salmon, dams remain the biggest threat to steelhead in the Northwest.

Still, it may be telling that Washington state has canned its fish-recycling programs in all but a few places, in order to eliminate second chances for wrong turns and unsupervised philandering. There, anglers just have to look sharp, the first time around.

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
  • ROADS END CABIN NEAR YELLOWSTONE
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]
  • ACCOUNTING CLERK
    Our director is seeking to employ the services of an Accounting Clerk to assist with various accounting and administrative tasks. This is a great opportunity...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COMMUNITY RADIO PROJECT
    Community Radio Project, Cortez, CO (KSJD & the Sunflower Theatre). Visit ksjd.org and click on the Executive Director search link. CRP is an EOE.