Recently, I stole away for five days at the end of September to one of my favorite places, Idaho. One of the sites of interest I was privileged to visit was the Hagerman National Fish Hatchery, near Hagerman, Idaho. The hatchery is located on the canyon floor adjacent to the mighty Snake River. The hatchery’s raceways are fed by 59-degree-Fahrenheit natural spring water that bubbles forth from the canyon’s lava walls. The water comes from the Eastern Snake River Aquifer and takes anywhere from one to 300 years to percolate up and out of the aquifer.
Hagerman is what is known as a “mitigation hatchery,” which is any hatchery, federal or state, whose mission is the reestablishment of those natural fisheries that have been lost or severely compromised by human activities. In the case of Idaho’s steelhead, one of their major routes to the Pacific Ocean is the Snake River, but the central and upper portions of the river have been cut off to the fish by four dams on the river’s lower reaches.
What’s so important about steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss) to Idaho and Idahoans? Well, according to Bryan Kenworthy, manager of the Hagerman hatchery, the steelhead sport fishery pumps some $90 million into the local economy of rural Idaho. That’s a lot of gas being pumped, fishing equipment being bought, outfitters being utilized and restaurants being frequented in every small town in the Salmon River drainage, where some 1.4 million steelhead smolts produced annually at Hagerman ultimately end up.
Annual losses of young hatchery steelhead that are released into Idaho’s rivers average about 23 percent, while wild stocks see annual mortality rates of 97 percent. Legally, in Idaho all wild steelheads are off limits to anglers, meaning they are strictly for catch-and-release only. But hatchery steelheads are fair game. One way to tell hatchery from wild steelheads is that Hagerman clips the adipose fins on all of their fish prior to releasing them. One reason the hatchery steelheads seem to do better: they are allowed to undergo their early life stages in the relative protection of the hatchery.
Hagerman releases the young steelhead when they are about 7 to 8 inches in length. The young steelheads will grow and undergo hormonal changes over the next one to three years in the Snake, Salmon and Columbia rivers and their tributaries, as they ready themselves for a 900-mile migration to the Pacific Ocean. At sea for one to three years, steelhead will then return to their home rivers to spawn. For every 1,000 smolts released three to 10 make their way back to Idaho as adults. Adult steelheads can reach 55 pounds and 45 inches in length.
My visit to the Hagerman Hatchery was very enjoyable, and I learned a lot about why regional fisheries are vital to local economies and deserving of restoration and how hatcheries like Hagerman play pivotal roles in sustaining these valuable resources.
Included is some video (below slide show) I took of my visit with Bryan Kenworthy as he discussed in detail the mission of Hagerman National Fish Hatchery.