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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

Air-Spawning Steelhead at Dworshak NFH

Region 1, March 5, 2013
Dworshak National Fish Hatchery employees air-spawn a steelhead.
Dworshak National Fish Hatchery employees air-spawn a steelhead. - Photo Credit: n/a
Air-spawned fish are first anesthetized...
Air-spawned fish are first anesthetized... - Photo Credit: n/a
Checked for a coded wire tag...
Checked for a coded wire tag... - Photo Credit: n/a
And measured for length. Scientists also take a genetic sample for further studies.
And measured for length. Scientists also take a genetic sample for further studies. - Photo Credit: n/a

An innovative, non-lethal spawning technique developed by biologists from the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), University of Idaho, and Nez Perce Tribe, along with help from Dworshak National Fish Hatchery staff, is transforming way North Fork Clearwater River steelhead are reproduced.

 

CRITFC, tribal, university, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife staff ‘air spawned’ steelhead at the hatchery in late February and early March as part of an experimental, interagency effort to ‘recondition’ steelhead so that they can spawn again.

Air spawning involves pushing air into a female steelhead to expel eggs without harming her. The technique can yield up to 6,000 eggs without killing the fish. The eggs are then fertilized and incubated at Dworshak National Fish Hatchery until they hatch. The hatchery, co-managed by the Service and the Tribe, will care for the steelhead on-site until their release next spring into the Clearwater River as juvenile fish.

Steelhead are unique from Pacific salmon because they can spawn more than once before dying. Such fish are known as ‘kelts,’ and may spawn a second or even third time. Increasing survival for adult spawners helps supplement Idaho’s B-run steelhead population and others that are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Normal spawning techniques require females and male steelhead to be euthanized in order to obtain their eggs and milt. The non-lethal technique--also applied to male steelhead--gives Nez Perce Tribe and University of Idaho researchers experimenting with kelt reconditioning studies approaches more options and, well, more live fish to hone reconditioning techniques.

Air-spawned adults, meanwhile, will be rehabilitated and either kept in captivity for further studies or released into the river, where they could be available for harvest. The result is a win-win for scientists, anglers, and of course, Clearwater River steelhead populations.

Contact Info: Sean Connolly, 503-231-2353, sean_connolly@fws.gov