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It’s feeding time, and a group of juvenile bull trout are ready to eat their breakfast.

Yakima Klickitat Fisheries Project Research Scientist Todd Newsome takes a cup of food and pours it into one of multiple holding tanks filled with the small fish at a location on the outskirts of Yakima.

“You’re about to see a feeding frenzy,” he said with a smile.

The bull trout Newsome is feeding will eventually be transported back to Upper Kittitas County as part of the Upper Yakima Bull Trout Restoration and Monitoring Project. The project is spearheaded by Yakama Nation Fisheries and aims to bring the numbers of bull trout back to healthy numbers in the Upper Yakima River watershed.

“The Yakama Nation has taken the lead on raising these bull trout in captivity,” he said.

Newsome said the project is a large component of the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, and although the scope of the project is still relatively small, he said it provides a critical element of the Integrated Plan as a whole.

“We have very few bull trout left in the basin,” he said.

The bull trout project is funded by a 50/50 split of Bureau of Reclamation and Washington Department of Ecology funds. Both entities are invested in the project, with most of the fish populations being above the BOR’s water storage complex along the watershed, and the DOE focusing on watershed health and diversity within the basin.

“Those two together have committed to funding this project,” Newsome said. “The Yakama Nation along with other partners have the capability and knowledge throughout the basin, as well as the infrastructure to raise the fish.”

CREATING A FOUNDATION

Newsome said the concept of raising bull trout in captivity is relatively new, with new concepts being learned on a regular basis about the process. He said a project in Montana focused on raising the species with the intention on better understanding the process. Although those fish were not returned to the wild, he said the project helped shed light on ideal temperatures and feeding habits of the juvenile fish.

“They figured out that they were cannibalistic,” he said.

Another project exists in the Clackamas River watershed in Oregon, with fish being brought from the Metolius River basin to be introduced in the Upper Clackamas. Newsome said that project has seen success.

The Yakima Basin project has unique factors apart from the other projects being done in the West. Newsome said the main issue that juvenile bull trout experience in the Yakima watershed is the dewatering of tributary streams above Lake Kachess and Keechelus. Surface water dries up during the summer, isolating the fish in pools where they are unable to move freely and are at an extreme risk of perishing.

Newsome said much of the cause of the seasonal dewatering is related to habitat degradation, a result of years of manipulation of the landscape from practices such as logging. Collaborative projects involving large wood restoration and other habitat restoration work are part of the process to help sustain fish populations in the upper basin. Yakama Nation Fisheries and agencies including Mid-Columbia Fisheries Enhancement Group, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Kittitas Conservation Trust are working each season to provide sustainable habitats for fish to survive throughout the year.

“The landscape is slowly beginning to heal,” Newsome said.

SUCCESS IN STAGES

Although the project still in its infancy, Newsome said the phases of the project each contain essential components that help ensure the successful reintroduction of the captive bull trout. As the water source begin to dry up during the summer, a team of biologists from Yakama Nation, Mid-Columbia Fisheries and WDFW collect the juvenile bull trout from the isolated pools in the upper basin. Half of the collected fry are moved to water sources upstream that do not dry up seasonally, while the other half are prepared for transport to the hatchery near Yakima.

Newsome said the team has learned a lot about the captive fish since the project began in 2019. Most notably, they have seen the cannibalism that was noted in the Montana study. As a result, the team has worked to modify the stages of feeding the captive fish while they are at the hatchery.

“When they first come in, we feed them a mixture of Daphnia, a native-type freshwater shrimp,” he said. “As they grow, we get rid of the Daphnia and brine shrimp and move more to more of a bloodworm and mysid shrimp mix. Then we move to the jumbo mysid and jumbo blood worms.”

As the fish continue to put on weight, Newsome said the team eventually transitions into feeding the captive fish live rainbow trout fry. The transitional feeding stages are designed to replicate what the fish would eat in their native habitat. As the bull trout transition to the rainbow trout diet, Newsome said the cannibalistic habits begin to present themselves. He said this is a reflection of how the fish naturally behave in their non-captive habitat.

“Each tank has fish that are dominant and fish that aren’t so dominant,” he said. “Generally in the wild, a lot of these fish would die naturally and get eaten.”

After continuing to raise the fish and transition their diet, Newsome said they are released back to the mouth of the streams they originally came from in June. Out of the approximately 110 fish released into the Keechelus Reservoir last year, Newsome said just over 70 survived.

“We had really good survival with those fish,” he said.

The fish released at the Gold Creek tributary system had similar success rates, and the fish released at the headwaters of Lake Kachess had a 14% survival rate. Although the Kachess survival rate was lower than the others, Newsome said the entire process is a learning experience, emphasizing that the 14% that survived the reintroduction would have likely perished due to their habitat drying up during the summer if they had not been transported to the hatchery complex.

“We’ve learned a lot,” Newsome said. “This is all about adaptive management. That’s the key word. How we can better raise these fish, because bringing fish in, raising them and putting them back really hasn’t been done before this.”

KEEPING TABS ON SURVIVAL

The fish that are released back into the watershed are tagged with passive transponders, otherwise known as PIT tags, enabling scientists to study where they travel and what depths they are at, as well as understanding what water temperatures the fish prefer. Newsome said the ultimate goal of the project is to get the reintroduced bull trout to contribute to the spawning population.

“That is where the rubber meets the road, per se,” he said.

When he is asked why the team would work to reintroduce a species that preys on salmon, Newsome explained that the Yakima Klickitat Fisheries Project embraces an all-species initiative, which calls for all native species to be included in reintroduction and restoration efforts. Yakama Nation Fisheries has taken the lead on this initiative through its work with the spring chinook hatchery in Cle Elum and the Melvin R. Sampson Coho hatchery outside Ellensburg, along with hatcheries in Prosser and Klickitat County and work being done in the Wenatchee River watershed.

“We have a lot of expertise in restoring systems of self-sustaining populations,” he said. “That’s why we’ve been tasked in doing this.”

As the fish are reintegrated back into their native habitat, Newsome said there are specific concerns involved with helping them survive. One of the concerns is that the fish are highly susceptible to angling.

“I fished for them when I was a kid and they were legal back then,” he said. “They’re easy to catch and they’re good to eat, but when we’re down to just a handful of fish we want to try to restore these fish numbers to a level where people can fish for them. We can’t do that unless people don’t target them. We all need to work together to bring this fish back.”

Newsome also pointed out that bull trout are an indicator species, being an apex predator at the top of their food chain. When an apex predator like this species is struggling to exist, he said that is a clear indicator that the species below it in the food chain are also struggling.

“It becomes an indicator that things are messed up,” he said. “Right now, this is a lifeboat strategy, trying to keep these populations alive until we can restore their habitat. It takes only days to destroy their habitat, but it takes years to restore it. It’s important that we keep these populations going while we do that.”

Reporting for the DR since March 2018. Lover of campfires, black labs and good vibes. Proud Humboldt State alum!

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