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Hatchery Steelhead Fry Displace Native Redbands

Joel La Follette - Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The La Follette family has a long history in Eastern Oregon on McKay and Ochoco creeks. Both streams provided angling distractions for the family from 1871 until the mid-1920s. My Great-great-great-grandfather, Jerome Bonapart La Follette met up with his brother, Capt. Charles La Follette on McKay Creek in 1867 while the captain was on the east side of the state establishing Camp Polk. Jerome moved the family to the area from the Willamette Valley and eventually owned a ranch on McKay Creek. His grandson, Leo, owned a place on Ochoco Creek where my grandfather first cast a fly. When this report came across my desk, I felt saddened that a genetic strain of native fish that shared the fertile valley with my ancestors was being threatened by an ill-advised attempt at reestablishing anadromous fish above the Pelton-Round Butte project. We all should be concerned about the future of wild fish in the upper basin. 

On October 31, 2018, PGE electronically filed a report with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) titled Native Fish Monitoring Plan: Biological Component Genetics Report and Addendum. This report documents a study by PGE and US Fish and Wildlife Service on the effects of hatchery Steelhead (O. mykiss) introduction on native populations of Redband Trout (O. mykiss) in Whychus Creek, McKay Creek, and Ochoco Creek. 

Fin clips were collected by ODFW and Portland General Electric (PGE) biologists from unclipped juvenile O. mykiss from July 2016 through November 2016 from Whychus, McKay, and Ochoco creeks in the upper Deschutes Basin. These samples were DNA tested and compared to baseline samples from 2005 to identify brood origin. I have read much of this report and must admit that my high school biology class didn’t cover extraction of DNA or the corresponding comparison studies. I waded down to the “Discussion” and “Conclusions” part of the report where English once again became the preferred language. I offer those parts of the report as presented. The Deschutes River Alliance has posted the full report here.

The results of this study indicate that collections of O. mykiss from Whychus Creek are genetically indistinguishable from Round Butte Hatchery O. mykiss, particularly in 2016, when 90% of all individuals assigned to Round Butte Hatchery and the FST value between the two groups was zero. There is also evidence which suggests O. mykiss from McKay Creek are being influenced by Round Butte Hatchery releases and are becoming increasingly genetically similar to Round Butte Hatchery O. mykiss. Only 3% of the fish collected in McKay Creek in 2013 assigned to Round Butte Hatchery. That increased to 26% in the 2016 McKay Creek collection. Decreasing FST values between the McKay Creek collections and the Round Butte collection through time also support this finding. Moreover, each of the clustering methods used here (neighbor-joining and DAPC) indicated that the Whychus Creek and McKay Creek collections are becoming more similar to Round Butte Hatchery through time. Assuming the collections made in Whychus Creek are representative of the populations in each year, our results suggest that wild O. mykiss have been mostly replaced in Whychus Creek in recent years by hatchery fish. While this hasn’t occurred to the same extent in McKay Creek, the increasing genetic similarity of the population to Round Butte Hatchery fish through time suggests the population is being heavily influenced by hatchery releases.
The influence of Round Butte Hatchery releases in Ochoco Creek isn’t as clear. This is primarily because we only have genetic data from a single collection made in 2016. However, over 25% of the fish collected from Ochoco Creek in 2016 assigned to Round Butte Hatchery, suggesting a sizable portion of the population was composed of hatchery fish.

As is the case with any population genetic study, conclusions we draw from the results presented here depend on the assumption that the collections we examined were representative of the populations from which they were taken. Assuming this is the case, we conclude that supplementation of hatchery-origin O. mykiss from Round Butte Hatchery, either as stocking of fry and smolts or less likely adult returns over Pelton Round Butte Dam, has had a strong influence on the composition of the population inhabiting Whychus Creek, and more recently McKay Creek and Ochoco Creek. Round Butte Hatchery O. mykiss have predominantly displaced natural-origin O. mykiss from Whychus Creek since 2005. This same pattern does not seem as prevalent in McKay Creek or Ochoco Creek. However, the increasing genetic similarity between the 2016 McKay Creek collection and Round Butte Hatchery collection suggests an increase in hatchery influence.
It is important to recognize that the samples analyzed in this study represented primarily juvenile individuals, many of which were likely sampled shortly after being outplanted as fry. Whether or not these individuals recruited into the spawning population in these creeks remains unknown. Our conclusions are limited to inferences regarding the juvenile populations from which these samples were collected. Many of the juveniles analyzed in this study would likely not have survived to spawn in these creeks. However, the number of hatchery releases and the influence they have had on the juvenile population composition in the Upper Deschutes basin over a relatively short period of time suggest that those releases represent a substantial risk to the persistence of the naturally-spawning populations, given what we know about the potential risks of hatchery introgression (Araki et al. 2007b; Araki et al. 2009; Araki and Schmid 2010; Christie et al. 2014).

The genetic intrusion into the wild Redband Trout population of these or any stream by hatchery Steelhead is inexcusable. This invasion in the name of a failing reintroduction effort is criminal. Sadly, our native Redband Trout have no “standing” in this situation from a legal or programmatic perspective. RBT (Redband Trout) aren’t protected under the Endangered Species Act. So they are therefore not of importance to agencies like NOAA and USFWS, who are commissioned with managing ESA listed anadromous fish populations. I would even offer that wild, native RBT don’t have much priority with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. ODFW would argue that they do support wild, native RBT populations, but their budget priorities suggest otherwise. As do the number of bodies of water in Oregon managed for wild Redband Trout.

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