This spring marks the last stocking of fry as part of the upper Deschutes Basin salmon and steelhead reintroduction effort. Yesterday I was part of the crew helping with the final chinook salmon fry stocking and backpacked fry into the lower Crooked River canyon as well as where Alder Springs meets Whychus Creek not far from the middle Deschutes. As I wrote about here, the reintroduction effort has been a disappointment for many reasons one of which is the unsuccessful fry stocking effort and a new approach is needed.
Fry stocking has not yielded good returns to the Selective Water Withdrawal tower in Lake Billy Chinook. In addition, steelhead fry have residualized (stayed in the rivers where they were planted) leading to competition and inbreeding with resident redband trout. In response, a few years ago a shift was made to plant more smolts (one year old fish ready to outmigrate to the ocean). Smolts have proven to have a much higher survival rate than fry. Also, smolts are placed in acclimation pens for a short period of time prior to release to imprint on those waters and increase the odds of them returning to the river where they were released.
This strategy has been tested over the past two years and has been much more successful than fry releases. It will now be the sole method of release in the future. This is a move in the right direction but the smolts continue to be raised from hatchery brood stock which are clearly inferior to wild fish.
The plan had been to use wild fish as brood stock but wild fish returns have been too low to allow for this. Fisheries managers want to make sure that wild fish in the lower Deschutes maintain their populations and are not willing to take any for brood stock with returns as low as they have been the last two years. This makes sense, but without improving the quality of the smolts planted in the upper basin the odds for reintroduction success remain low. At this point all we can hope for is improved ocean conditions which will allow for sufficient wild fish returns to use some as broodstock.
Does anyone have a quick cure for global heating and improved ocean conditions?