Close to 250,000 steelhead smolts destined for stocking in Washington rivers this spring instead made an early getaway. The juvenile fish escaped from the Lyons Ferry Hatchery into the Snake River, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife announced on February 3. The loss accounts for about 64 percent of the Columbia County hatchery’s Wallowa stock of steelhead slated for release in 2022.

Hatchery workers became aware of the escape in late January when they lowered the water level in a rearing pond to collect the smolts for transport to Cottonwood Acclimation Pond on the Grande Ronde River, according to a WDFW news release. A rubber gasket on a rotating screen system was found to have deteriorated, creating a 1-1/2-inch gap that allowed the fish to wriggle free.

The quarter of a million smolts that were lost represent less than 8 percent of the overall hatchery steelhead production in the Snake River basin, according to WDFW, which operates 80 hatcheries across Washington and raises about 5 million steelhead smolts annually. Still, the loss will have a real population-level impact according to Chris Donley, the WDFW Eastern Region fishery manager.

“This is really just one more death by 1,000 cuts for recreational steelhead fishing,” Donley told the Lewiston Tribune, referring to a string of poor steelhead runs in the Snake and Columbia rivers. “Poor ocean survival and now we have this loss—I want to make sure people have their expectations set properly for the fall of 2023.”

The shortage of smolts means that only 135,000 juvenile steelhead will be released into the Grand Ronde near Bogans Oasis instead of the usual 225,000, and none will be stocked in the Touchet River near Dayton. Anglers in those areas will likely encounter fewer fish in the summer and fall of 2023. On the other hand, many of the escapees may survive, potentially improving fishing near the hatchery when those adults return to the Snake River.

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Unfortunately, fisheries officials don’t know if the runaway smolts survived, because they don’t know exactly when the fish escaped. If it happened early last fall when the fish were placed in the pond and were still quite small, predators like walleye and smallmouth bass likely took a big bite out of their numbers, Donnelly told the Tribune. If the escape occurred as the pond was being lowered in late January, then those larger fish face better odds for survival.

The gasket that failed was installed in August before the pond was filled with water and steelhead fingerlings. The gasket’s location under 6 feet of water made it difficult for hatchery staff to regularly inspect. The incident has forced the department to re-evaluate its hatchery procedures. “We share a deep concern alongside anglers and community members for the loss of these steelhead smolts,” Donley said. “We remain committed to pursuing improved equipment and shifting to more frequent servicing to safeguard from equipment failures like this one going forward.”