Open-File Report 2014–1122
Summer steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss) produced by a hatchery on the lower Cowlitz River, Washington, support a popular sport fishery during June–September each year. Many of these fish return to the Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery and are held until they are spawned in December. In the past, fishery managers have released some of the steelhead that return to the hatchery at downstream release sites (hereafter referred to as “recycled steelhead”) to increase angling opportunity. The recycling of summer steelhead is a potential use of hatchery fish that can benefit anglers in the lower Cowlitz River, provided these fish are harvested or return to the hatchery. However, recycled steelhead that are not removed from the river could compete against or spawn with wild winter steelhead, which would be a negative consequence of recycling. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) conducted an evaluation during 1998 and recycled 632 summer steelhead. They determined that 55 percent of the recycled steelhead returned to the hatchery and 15 percent of the fish were harvested by anglers. The remaining 30 percent of recycled fish were not known to have been removed from the river. Recycling has not occurred in recent years because definitive studies have not been conducted to determine the fate of the fish that remain in the lower Cowlitz River after being recycled.
The U.S. Geological Survey and WDFW conducted a 2-year study during 2012–2014 to quantify recycled steelhead that (1) returned to the hatchery, (2) were captured by anglers, or (3) remained in the river. All recycled steelhead were marked with a Floy® tag and opercle punch, and 20 percent of the recycled fish were radio-tagged to determine post-release behavior and movement patterns, and to describe locations of tagged fish that remained in the river during the spawning period. During 2012–2013, we recycled 549 steelhead and determined that 50 percent of the fish returned to the hatchery, 18 percent of the fish were harvested by anglers, and 32 percent of the fish were not known to have been removed from the river. During October–December 2012, only 9 percent of the radio-tagged steelhead remained in the lower Cowlitz River and none of these fish entered tributaries monitored by fixed-telemetry sites.
The second year of the evaluation was conducted during 2013–2014. A total of 502 steelhead were recycled during June–August and releases were conducted weekly with group sizes that ranged from 30 to 76 fish. Results from 2013–2014 were similar to results from 2012–2013. Fifty percent (251 fish) of the recycled steelhead returned to the hatchery, 20 percent (100 fish) were harvested by anglers, and 30 percent (151 fish) were unaccounted for. The median elapsed time from release to hatchery return was 13 days, and the median elapsed time from release to capture by an angler was 11 days. The percentage of unaccounted-for steelhead in the general population was moderately high (30 percent), but detection records of radio-tagged fish suggest that few recycled steelhead were present in the lower Cowlitz River during the spawning period.
A total of 109 steelhead were radio-tagged during 2013–2014, and most of these fish (88 percent) moved upstream following release and entered the Trout Hatchery–Salmon Hatchery reach (river miles 44–51). The median elapsed time from release to reach entry was 4.6 days (range of 0.5–65.5 days). After fish entered this reach, they spent a considerable amount of time near the Cowlitz Trout Hatchery (median residence time of 16.7 hours) or Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery (median residence time of 146.3 hours), or they moved back and forth between these two sites. Thirty radio-tagged steelhead made at least two trips between the sites and some fish made as many as seven trips. Detection records showed that 61 percent (66 fish) of the radio-tagged fish returned to the hatchery reach and 21 percent (23 fish) of the fish were captured by anglers. The remaining 18 percent (20 fish) of the radio-tagged fish had various fates. One fish (less than 1 percent) left the Cowlitz River and nine fish (8 percent) died, were harvested, or spit their transmitter near boat launches in the river. The remaining 10 fish (9 percent) had the potential to interact with winter steelhead. Four tagged steelhead (4 percent) entered lower Cowlitz River tributaries (two fish in the Toutle River; two fish in Salmon Creek) during October and November, and five tagged fish (5 percent) were last detected in the lower Cowlitz River in October. One fish (less than 1 percent) was never detected after being released.
We measured the diameter of opercle punches in recycled steelhead to determine the temporal effectiveness of these marks. A total of 116 opercle punches were measured—36 were measured at the time of tagging and 80 were measured when fish returned to the hatchery. Opercle punches remained open for less than 1 month. None of the fish that returned to the hatchery more than 30 days after release had opercle punches that were open. All recycled steelhead were marked with a Floy® tag and opercle punch. However, if a steelhead lost its Floy® tag and was captured by an angler, or returned to the hatchery more than 30 days after being recycled, it likely would not have been accurately identified as having been recycled because of regrowth of the opercle punch.
During 2013–2014, at least 70 percent of the recycled steelhead were removed from the lower Cowlitz River by anglers, returned to the hatchery, or left the river. Radiotelemetry data indicated that a maximum of 9 percent of the radio-tagged fish remained in the lower Cowlitz River during the spawning period and only 4 percent of the radio-tagged fish entered tributaries where wild steelhead are known to spawn. These results are consistent with findings from previous studies. Overall, results from these studies suggest that about one-third of the recycled steelhead were not known to have been removed from the river. However, the radiotelemetry data indicated that only about 10 percent of the recycled steelhead were present in the lower Cowlitz River during late autumn and early winter, and few of those fish (0 in 2012–2013 and 4 in 2013–2014) entered tributaries where winter steelhead spawn. These results have management implications in the lower Cowlitz River where the risks and rewards of steelhead recycling will be weighed to determine the future of the recycling program.
First posted June 20, 2014
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Kock, T.J., Liedtke, T.L., Ekstrom, B.K., Gleizes, Chris, and Dammers, Wolf, 2014, Evaluation of the behavior and movement of adult summer steelhead in the lower Cowlitz River, Washington, following collection and release, 2013–2014: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2014-1122, 20 p., https://dx.doi.org/10.3133/ofr20141122.
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