Washington loses 250,000 steelhead smolts after equipment failure at hatchery

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State wildlife managers have lost nearly 250,000 steelhead smolts from a rearing pond at the Lyons Ferry Hatchery on the Snake River, south of Palouse Falls.

The loss, which was discovered Sunday, accounts for about 64 per cent of Lyons Ferry Hatchery’s Wallowa stock summer steelhead set for release in 2022 and 8 per cent of the overall hatchery steelhead production in the Snake River basin, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

A rubber gasket that sealed a screened rotating drum failed, leaving an inch-and-half gap and thus a path to the Snake River, according to Chris Donley, WDFW’s eastern region fishery manager. Staff discovered the failure when they began to lower the water level, Sunday reported local paper The Spokesman Review.

Map: The Spokesman Review

“In this case I don’t believe this was a staff failure,” Donley said during a media call with reporters Thursday. “This was an equipment failure.”

Whether the incident is investigated further will be up to WDFW officials in Olympia, Donley said. How much the failure will cost the state agency wasn’t immediately available Thursday.

Whether the 249,770 smolts survived isn’t clear either and depends largely on when they escaped, Donley said. It’s possible that if they escaped the holding pen when the water was being lowered on Sunday they may survive, leading to a higher-than-normal number of returning steelhead near Lyons Ferry. Normally, WDFW releases 60,000 steelhead smolts at Lyons Ferry. However, if they escaped earlier in the winter or late fall, many were likely eaten by walleye or other predators.

WDFW and other state wildlife agencies rear steelhead and salmon smolts and then transport and release them to various areas in the state. WDFW operates 80 hatcheries across Washington and raises about 5 million steelhead smolts annually.