It’s three o’clock in the morning on May 17, 2022, and Nate Jensen and his crew prepare to depart Twin Rivers Tribal Sturgeon and Burbot Hatchery with 68 bags of precious cargo. Jensen is the conservation aquaculture supervisor for the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho.
The clock is ticking, and time is of the essence. Everything is in place to transport millions of burbot larvae over the Canadian border from the hatchery near Bonners Ferry, Idaho, to Kootenay Lake, British Columbia. This is the 13th year of a multi-year effort that has taken great determination by Jensen, director of the Kootenai Tribe’s Fish and Wildlife Department Dr. Shawn Young, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and multiple other agencies dedicated to navigating all the regulations surrounding in-state and international shipments of aquatic species.
“By the time we start bagging up the fish, all of us with the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho are beyond stressed. Everyone needs to be on-point to get this done,” Jensen said. “This is not the first time we have followed through with all the requirements only to be rejected at the last minute. Everything rides on a stack of export, import and transport permits. All those permits aside; one document stands out above the rest … the U.S. Department of Agriculture-APHIS Aquatic Animal Health Export Certificate. That one document and everything required to get it in my hands, makes or breaks this effort.”
Burbot are a freshwater member of the cod family, a keystone species in the Kootenai River. The burbot shipment is important because this native species once sustained a culturally significant fishery and winter food source for the Tribe.
Modifications of the Kootenai River in the 1970s caused a significant decline in Kootenai sturgeon and burbot populations. After the completion of Libby Dam in 1975, the Tribe’s ability to exercise their treaty-reserved fishing rights was all but eliminated. As fish populations declined, Kootenai sturgeon were listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1994, and the burbot became a species of concern in Idaho and Red-Listed (at risk of extinction) in British Columbia.
In response to this burbot and sturgeon crisis, the Tribe partnered with the British Columbia Ministry of Environment, Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the University of Idaho to investigate burbot aquaculture. In 2014, the multi-million-dollar Twin Rivers hatchery facility was built at the confluence of the Kootenai and Moyie rivers to produce both burbot and sturgeon. The dedication was a joyous occasion with drumming, celebrating, speakers and tours of the new 35,000-square-foot hatchery.
The Tribe’s burbot program is focused on re-establishing a natural reproducing, self-sustaining population, using genetically similar stock from within the subbasin. Since the creation of the burbot aquaculture program, the burbot population in the river has grown from an estimated 50 fish to more than 50,000. The success of the program allowed the re-opening of a harvest fishery in 2019, but it is dependent on transfers of burbot from the Tribal hatchery to north Idaho and Canada. Since 2014, Canadian Food Inspection Agency regulations superseded past regulations involving international transports, causing issues, and blocking Canadian releases from 2019 to 2021.
Developing hatchery methods and bringing burbot back from near extinction is miraculous, but the convoluted regulatory process the Tribe must navigate to move fish internationally is a major barrier to continued success. The Kootenai Basin crosses the U.S./Canada border and both countries have their own complex rules and regulations for the transport and release of live animals. To make matters more complicated, those regulations had never been applied to anything like the Tribe’s burbot program. Add COVID-19 into the equation and the complications increase exponentially.
The Tribe must adhere to regulations and proper permitting for species listed under the Endangered Species Act to comply with the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, the Canadian Species at Risk Act, and complex international fish health regulations. Seven permits are required to move burbot across the border, which is where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service comes into this carefully orchestrated mad dash across the border.
“The lengthy process involves all kinds of dashing about for testing, inspections and certificates with raised seals, which are only required for aquatic species. It’s all carefully orchestrated with tight deadlines,” explained Andy Goodwin, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pacific Region Fish Health Program manager.
The final process for the 2022 shipment to Canada was the result of years of negotiation. Service staff played an essential part to establish the required official disease-free status for international movement.
1) U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fish pathologist Laura Sprague drove 5½ hours from her office in Orofino, Idaho, to the hatchery to collect 175 samples for disease testing. The burbot larvae were the size of black pepper flakes and each sample consisted of thousands of fish that together had to match a target weight.
2) Sprague then drove the samples to the only laboratory in the Northwest with the special accreditation for export — the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory (WADDL) in Pullman, Washington.
3) The laboratory completed the testing and produced the required paperwork.
4) Sprague then returned to the hatchery and conducted a video tour and interview between the hatchery staff and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Veterinary Medical Officer Dr. Christine Parker-Graham in Lacey, Washington. This had to take place within 96 hours of the shipment time.
5) Parker-Graham then used the testing and inspection results to produce the export paperwork and drove the paperwork to the regional U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service office in Tumwater, Washington, for review and a seal. Only a USDA Type II-accredited veterinarian can sign the health certificate for fish.
6) Next, Parker-Graham drove to Tacoma, Washington, to meet a Tribal representative to physically hand them the original, signed and sealed paperwork, which is required at the Canadian border.
7) Within 72 hours of the export/import, the Service’s regional wildlife inspector was notified, and an Electronic Declaration was filed and approved. Exports are also subject to inspection at the discretion of the Service’s wildlife officer and/or U.S. Border Patrol.
8) Finally, the Tribe made an appointment at the border so the required Canadian Government inspector would be present to approve the import. Only British Columbia Ministry personnel are allowed to schedule this appointment.
To make sure the 2022 shipment succeeded, Parker-Graham, Sprague, the Tribe and WADDL had many meetings with U.S. and Canadian import/export officials. They also developed and reviewed draft paperwork, and even ran practice paperwork through the APHIS office to make sure the raised-seal process would work. All the years of negotiation, trials, planning and practice all came to fruition this time. Just a few hours after the paperwork got final approval, more than 6 million burbot larvae were transported and released into their new home in British Columbia, Canada, where they can do their part to continue the recovery of this iconic species.
“Kootenay Lake consists of a significant portion of the recovery area for native fish species,” Jensen said. “It is extremely important for the Kootenai River Native Fish Conservation Program to produce fish for Kootenay Lake because it consists of approximately half of the defined recovery area and has a multitude of productive habitats. Kootenay Lake itself is not only important to the program as a recovery area, but also a major part of the altered ecosystem that the Kootenai Tribe and sister Tribes have a covenant with the Creator to take care of and protect.”
International fish movement regulations are designed to protect endangered species and to prevent the movement of reportable pathogens to new countries, but they are often ambiguous, especially when the export involves something as unique as a Kootenai burbot.
The spectacular success of the 2022 shipment is a real credit to the expertise and determination of the Kootenai Tribe, and to the importance of their partnership with fish health experts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.