Large Steelhead Smolt Loss Reported At Snake River Hatchery

Nearly a quarter million young fin-clipped steelhead escaped from a Southeast Washington hatchery following an equipment failure there, a “significant … loss” that will most impact fishing on the state’s lower Grande Ronde in early 2024.

Conversely, fishing could also be really good at Lyons Ferry on the Snake River, but that totally depends on when the summer-runs swam out of the facility there after a newly installed rubber gasket unexpectedly deteriorated and left a 1 1/2-inch gap in a rearing pond for the fish to slip through.


Chris Donley, WDFW’s regional fisheries manager, disclosed the incident this afternoon during a call with outdoor reporters, calling it a “significant steelhead smolt loss.”

He said the loss was discovered as crews drew the pond down in recent days to move most of the fish to acclimation ponds on the Ronde and Touchet and it became clear that far fewer of the steelhead were around than there should have been.

The rubber seal goes around a screened rotating drum that is otherwise 6 feet down in a 10- to 12-foot-deep raceway and difficult to see by hatchery workers, he said.

When subsequently inspected, the rubber “literally crumbled,” Donley said.

The gasket is subject to annual inspection and a new one had been installed last August, he said.

“I don’t believe this is a staff failure. This was a material failure,” Donley said, and vowed to make sure it didn’t happen again.

A WDFW press release said that hatchery workers “are pursuing better-engineered equipment and will implement increased equipment checks going forward to prevent a similar loss in the future.”

Donley said it was up to WDFW Headquarters in Olympia whether the incident is investigated more fully.

The loss of 249,770 young fish amounts to 64 percent of the Wallowa-stock steelhead being raised at Lyons Ferry Hatchery, but roughly 8 percent of the summer-runs produced in the Snake River basin, according to WDFW.

The agency had been rearing 415,000 steelhead at the hatchery since last August and this week was able to at least truck 132,000 to the Grande Ronde’s Cottonwood Creek acclimation pond, several miles upstream of the Highway 129 bridge and site of Boggan’s Oasis.

But this year’s release there for return in fall 2023 and winter-spring 2024 will still be 90,000 smolts short of the usual release of 225,000.

“Anglers should anticipate lower harvest, especially in February and March” 2024, Donley warned, setting expectations well in advance of the return.

The clipped steelhead will also contribute to downstream fishing opportunities.

No Oregon programs further up on the Grande Ronde were impacted, he said, and it’s very likely that WDFW broodstock goals in 2024 will still be met, given the need for only 300 spawners and the ability to draw on ODFW hatcheries to make up any shortfalls.

Donley said it’s not known when the steelhead began escaping from Lyons Ferry. He said if it occurred last September and October, the small fish were likely “consumed by walleye.”

However, if the smolts only recently began leaking out of the rearing pond as it was being lowered to gather the fish and the current spurred them to swim out through the gap in the seal, it’s possible they will imprint on Lyons Ferry.

“If they survive, we could have quite a few return” there, said Donley.

Normally only 60,000 are released here on the Snake.

Today’s disclosure contrasts with the large loss of Cowlitz River steelhead smolts in 2016 which led to months of fruitless digging by the Centralia Chronicle before the news was made public.